Inbee Park, seven-time major champion and LPGA Tour Hall of Famer, was a winless teenager the last time the world sent its finest women’s golfers on a business trip to Minnesota.
“I hadn’t even won as a professional the last time I went there,” she said by phone last month. “I have great memories of Minnesota. That’s the best I ever putted in my life. I wish something good can happen there again.”
Her opportunity has arrived. Winner of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen at 19, the now-30-year-old Park will tee it up at another iconic Minnesota venue, Hazeltine National, when the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship begins Thursday.
“The practice rounds will be my first look at Hazeltine, but everyone knows the history,” Park said. “With KPMG on board, we’re getting to play some of the classic courses the men play for their majors and Ryder Cups. I just hope I putt like I did at Interlachen.”
Another memorable figure from the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open hopes otherwise. Stacy Lewis, 34, led after three rounds in her pro debut at Interlachen, but could have used Park’s putter and steady nerves in a final-round 78 that left her tied for third, five shots behind Park’s 9-under 283.
“I played with her [in May] and I told her [longtime caddie Brad Beecher], ‘I love to watch Inbee putt’ because every putt looks like it has a chance,” Lewis said. “There’s nobody out there on our tour that does that. She’s a Hall of Famer. She won an Olympic gold medal [in 2016]. What Inbee has done since that U.S. Open in Minnesota is crazy impressive.”
Ranked No. 10 in the world, Park said her ball-striking right now “is as good as it’s ever been.” She ranks 12th in greens in regulation (74.8 percent). But her putting is far from 2008 form, ranking 69th (30.14 putts per round).
“I’m a lot more solid overall than 2008,” Park said. “But, putting-wise, I was at my best in 2008. If I can putt like I did in 2008, I think I can still win a lot of majors.”
The first came on June 29, 2008, in Edina, when Park shot a 2-under 71 — the only sub-75 round in the final two groups at Interlachen — to become the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open. Today, her seven major wins are tied with Juli Inkster and Karrie Webb for seventh all-time behind Betsy Rawls (eight), Annika Sorenstam (10), Babe Zaharias (10), Louise Suggs (11), Mickey Wright (13) and Minnesota’s own Patty Berg (15).
Born July 12, 1988, in Seoul, South Korea, Park was 10 when she joined in the first wave of Korean girls inspired to play golf after watching fellow Korean Se Ri Pak win two majors — the U.S. Women’s Open and Women’s PGA Championship — as a 1998 LPGA Tour rookie.
“Having a role model like Se Ri, Annika and Karrie growing up helped me stay focused,” Park said. “I was really busy. I moved to the United States at 12. I was trying to study, learn English and play golf all at the same time.”
Today, it’s Park who has young Asian girls and fellow competitors telling her she was their inspiration. Park has eight wins on other women’s professional tours, including one on the Korean LPGA Tour last year.
“It’s nice being someone else’s role model,” she said. “Some young girl will say she started playing golf because of what I did at Interlachen. I still think I am young, but when I go to the KLPGA Tour, most of the players are 10, 12 years younger than me. I really don’t feel like I’m young when I go back to Korea.”
Park was a force in American junior girls golf. She won the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship and was just 14 when she reached the semifinals of the 2003 U.S. Women’s Amateur.
“Golf just came to me so easily,” Park said. “When I won the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen, I really didn’t know what it meant. I knew it was big, but I didn’t have much pressure.”
In the Hall
Ironically, the feeling of pressure arrived after Park won at Interlachen. She didn’t post the second of her 19 LPGA Tour wins until 2012. She didn’t win another major until 2013.
“I had some tough times,” she said. “I lost a lot of confidence.”
It returned in 2013 when Park won the season’s first three majors. Her last major victory came in 2015 at the Ricoh Women’s British Open.
Park also won the 2015 Vare Trophy (lowest scoring average on tour) to secure the 27th and final point she needed for entry into the LPGA Tour Hall of Fame. Players are awarded one point for a regular win, two for a major and one for winning player of the year or the Vare Trophy.
The other requirement is to reach 10 starts in one’s 10th season. Park did that at the 2016 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. She was the first to reach Hall of Fame status since Pak in 2007 and, at age 27, the youngest ever do to so.
“The Hall of Fame was always my dream,” Park said. “Then, at 27, it came true. At first, I thought, ‘Oh, well. What’s next?’
“But I’m still so young. I have a long way to go. This is not the end. This is just the beginning. There are still so many things I can achieve.”