By Ann Liguori
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Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Michael Jordan, Mariano Rivera, Annika Sorenstam, Roger Federer, Hermann Maier, Tiger Woods … I’ve seen and covered many of the mentally toughest athletes on the planet. And I’ve interviewed some who were as mentally fierce as they come: Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Wilt Chamberlain and Jerry West to name a few.
And after watching Inbee Park win the 2013 U.S. Women’s Open on challenging Sebonack, her third straight major victory of the season, I’d add her name to the elite list of the most mentally tough athletes, right now.
If you aren’t familiar with the top-ranked golfer in the women’s game, you should start watching her. On a difficult U.S. Open layout with tricky, undulating greens, with a variety of weather elements thrown into the mix – swirling wind, fog, a bit of rain and heat — Park executed shot after shot to precise spots on the greens, hit consistent recovery shots during the few times she needed to and putt like a maniac. There is a reason why she leads the LPGA Tour in putting. Most of the time she lines up a putt, she drains it. And you can’t really say that about a lot of the top players in the game – male or female!
Park showed an unflappable demeanor on her way to winning her second U.S. Open title and joined Babe Zaharias as the only two female golfers to win three straight majors. (Zaharias won all three majors played in the year 1950 – the Titleholders Championship, the Women’s Western Open and the U.S. Women’s Open.)
Park, the 24-year-old from South Korea, with an 8-under-par 280, beat fellow-South Korean and friend I.K. Kim by four shots. Park shot a plus 2-over-par 74 on a very windy afternoon at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton, N.Y., where dense fog burned off in the early afternoon just before Park and Kim went out as the final pairing in the final round. So Yeon Ryu, another South Korean, finished third at 1-under.
Paula Creamer and Angela Stanford, tied for fourth, were the two highest-finishing Americans. Americans Brittany Lang and Jessica Korda, at plus-2, were tied for fourth.
This is Park’s second U.S. Women’s Open title. She won her first U.S. Women’s Open in 2008 when she was 19-years-old. This is her sixth win of the season and the seventh of her career.
Park hit 51 of 54 fairways, an incredible 91 percent for all four rounds. She hit 50 of 72 greens in regulation, which is an excellent 69 percent. She was 6-under on the par fours and 5-under on the par fives all week. Even with three straight bogies on holes 11, 12 and 13 in the third round, Park bounced back with two straight birdies on holes 14 and 15, before birding the final hole in round three. In the fourth round, she punched out of high rough between two trees and continued effortlessly and unfazed.
Park has been in a zone that is fascinating to watch; a zone in which she makes incredible shots, holes putts from a variety of lies and distances, maintains composure and focus, comes back strong after adversity, and does it, seemingly so effortlessly, looking completely unaware of pressure or the magnitude of the situation.
After her win, I asked her secret to her unflappable mental approach to the game.
“I think it’s just I’m getting a lot more mature,” Park replied. “I’m getting a lot of experience. Talking to my mental coach definitely helps. I talk to her every week. Yeah, I mean, she’s been helping me a lot too. I’m just getting a lot more experience.
“I mean, if you’ve been in this kind of situation before and you’re there the second time, it just helps you. I mean, you’ve been there and you know you’ve done that, so I think it’s just that kind of thing.”
Park continued: “I think because like Yani (Tseng), Annika (Sorenstam), Lorena (Ochoa), what they were doing because they were experienced and they’ve been in that position so many times that they don’t feel that much pressure when they’re there, not as much as what other players would feel. I think I’m taking, like one step towards them.
“I know I have a long ways to go to go somewhere like what Yani or what Annika and what Lorena have achieved. I still have a long ways to go. Yeah, I still have a lot of things to learn. Yeah, I’m still in the learning process.”
Park is wise beyond her years, obviously. And I’d like to learn more about what her mental coach is teaching her.
When I asked her, Park replied, “Just every week she gives me one thing to concentrate for, and we talk about what we should be working on this week and what I should be thinking about on the golf course.”
Park will next attempt to win her fourth straight major championship, the British Open, August 1-4 at the Old Course at St. Andrews. She could become the only player to win four professional majors in a single season. Only Bobby Jones has won what is considered the Grand Slam. In 1930, Jones won the U.S. and British Amateurs and the U.S. and British Opens. Mickey Wright and Tiger Woods won four straight majors but both took place in two calendar years with Wright in 1961-62 and the Tiger Slam in 2000-2001.
If Park continues with her amazing shot-making and putting, handling herself in her calm, unfazed way, there will be no limit to her success.
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