LANCASTER, Pa. — This is a big ballpark, so it makes perfect sense that a big player might walk away with the 70th U.S. Women’s Open trophy here this weekend.
There isn’t a bigger player in women’s golf than Inbee Park, 26, from South Korea. She’s not a big hitter, but she is the LPGA’s biggest talent.
Park is the No. 1-ranked player in the world, her third reign in that position. She’s already won three times in 2015 — including the KPMG Women’s PGA last month — and she owns six major championship titles, including a Tiger-esque five of the last 12.
Lancaster Country Club is a beautifully classic track with lush fairways, towering trees and smooth, undulating greens, and because it’s playing so long after a month of almost unrelenting rain, this Open is putting a premium on ball-striking.
The good news for would-be contenders is that Inbee Park hasn’t found the form she used to win the Women’s PGA, where she played the last 56 holes without a bogey. Lancaster’s treacherously fast slopes have been slowed by the rain and the fast-growing grass. So Inbee, like most players in the field, has left a lot of putts short or missed them because they didn’t have enough speed.
Enough sob story. Be forewarned, all Inbee Park has done is plod steadily around this track in stoic fashion. She finished off a 2-under 68 Friday morning when she returned to finish the last four holes of her storm-delayed opening round, then methodically churned out 14 pars with two birdies and two bogeys and a even-par 70 in sunny but breezy conditions.
Two first-round leaders Karrie Webb and Marina Alex were just teeing off in afternoon wave of the second round Friday afternoon, having finished the first round Thursday with matching 66s, when Inbee finished Friday. Inbee was at 138, 2 under par and tied for the clubhouse lead with fellow early finisher Jane Park (no relation to Inbee), who followed her first-round 66 with a 72.
So it could be this simple: The best player in women’s golf (arguably the best, if you insist) was near the Open lead without having played her best golf yet. If she does, and Inbee Park has a history of performing her best in the biggest tournaments and on the biggest courses, this chase could be over. That’s just conjecture, and there will be another 36 holes to decide this Open, but Inbee Park is positioned well.
“My goal is not to shoot over par the next two days,” she said. “It’s all about positive thinking. You get tired of making so many pars in a row and you get disappointed when you miss birdie opportunities, but I keep reminding myself it’s the U.S. Open and that par is a good score.”
Inbee Park hit 11 fairways and 13 greens in regulation and needed 31 putts, more than she’d typically like. But these sloping greens, with several diabolical hole locations near false fronts in the second round, are part of the reason. Still, she seems like a miler who’s content to hang back in the pack before making her usual final-lap kick.
“I left a lot of putts short today,” she said. “If I had the speed, I would’ve made at least three more putts. It’s hard to make yourself believe you have to smash putts when you’re playing the U.S. Open. I felt stupid because every hole I told myself, ‘Hit it harder,’ and I still kept leaving it short. I feel like I’m putting really good, but my speed isn’t good enough. I’m still trying to get adjusted.”
Adjustments are what the best players usually do best. The weather forecast is for a hot, sunny and dry weekend. That should firm up the fairways and maybe speed up the greens.
“I like the way the greens are holding right now, but I’d like them to be a little quicker,” Inbee said. “If the greens get fast and dry, it’s going to be difficult to stop the long shots we’re hitting in. I’d like the course to play shorter. I hit a lot of 5-woods and rescue clubs into the greens and you don’t get that many opportunities, you have to make 20-footers to get birdies.”
Lancaster CC may be playing right into her hands. The same goes for Jane Park, who is one of the tour’s shorter hitters. Told by a media official that she ranks 134th in driving distance on the tour, she seemed surprised and disappointed.
“Am I really? Wow!” Jane replied. “Well, I give up a lot of distance off the tee, but my irons and woods are very accurate. I’ve got a good handle on how far I’m hitting all my clubs and the greens are receptive so I’m able to go at pins when I need to.”
Why would a long course favor a shorter hitter? Because those players, like the two Parks, are adept with long irons and hybrids and fairway woods or they wouldn’t be on tour in the first place. If a tournament turns into a 4-iron hitting contest, a shorter player will probably win. Longer hitters just don’t play that many 4-iron shots because they don’t rarely have to. Lancaster, besides being wet, also features a lot of uphill holes and landing areas on upslopes, making it play longer than its 6,480 yards and par of 70 would indicate.
Jane Park, 28, a former UCLA player who lives in Atlanta, said she couldn’t reach the par-4 ninth hole Friday despite a really good drive and a 3-wood shot, coming up 15 yards short. She did reach the par-4 18th hole in two for the first time all week and was pleased to make par there.
“The wind was howling and we’re not getting any roll, which would help my case. A lot of times my ball mark is right next to my ball in the fairway. But I’m hitting it on a string right now, which helps, and giving myself a lot of birdie chances.”
Jane Park has battled injuries and while she was a college star and a former U.S. Women’s Amateur champ, she has never fulfilled her potential and has never won on the LPGA Tour.
“That’s my next goal, to win out here,” she said. “When you’re not healthy, your confidence isn’t high and you don’t believe in your swing. I’m just happy I’m playing well and injury-free right now, which is more than I could say last year.”
This is a big ballpark and these two Parks have handled it so far.