BEDMINSTER, N.J. – Golf is a fickle game. It teases with success and lulls into security, then torments with failure and regret.
Nowhere is the ambivalence more evident than at a U.S. Golf Association national championship. Ask Phil Mickelson, who has played spectacularly enough to finish second in six U.S. Opens, but never win.
Or ask Nancy Lopez, the Arnold Palmer of the women’s game. She came close and went home winless four times at the U.S. Women’s Open. Her second-place score of 9-under 275 at Pumpkin Ridge was good enough to win or tie for the 72-hole lead in 68 of the Women’s Opens that have been played. But in 1997, it was one shot more than Alison Nicholas needed, good enough only for a teary-eyed second.
This kind of bait-and-switch happens over and over again, as it did on Sunday at Trump National Golf Club. Shanshan Feng led the 72nd Women’s Open through 57 holes, then saw it evaporate on Sunday afternoon. Instead of becoming the first player from China to win the championship, she tied for fifth.
Likewise, Hye-Jin Choi played flawless golf, the kind not often associated with a 17-year-old amateur. But with one bad swing from the 70th tee box, one can-opener into the water at No. 16, her hopes of making history sank to the bottom of her heart. Golf can be fickle.
But every now and then, tournament golf gives back. Every so often, one who has had the rug pulled out from under her can stand on the carpet once more, and the ride is magical.
Case in point, Sung Hyun Park. “Well, to be honest with you, I still cannot believe that it is actually happening,” Park said in Korean through her interpreter on Sunday evening. “It's almost feel like I'm floating on a cloud in the sky.”
A year ago, Park couldn’t float and couldn’t pull a rip cord fast enough. She was in the thick of the 71st Women’s Open at CordeValle Golf Club in San Martin, Calif. Then came the final round. Then came word on the 11th hole that she and her playing competitors, Lydia Ko and Eun Hee Ji, were on the clock. Then came bogeys at Nos. 12 and 14.
When Park came to the 18th hole on that Sunday, she still had a chance. But she hit her second shot into the water, and she missed a playoff between Brittany Lang and Anna Nordqvist by two shots. She was tormented.
“It's been a long and hard way to come here to the United States and get my championship,” Park explained, as best she could. “It was not the easiest that we have gone through with my family, as well with my parents. But I have to definitely thank my parents and the sponsors who waited patiently and believed in me.”
On Sunday at Trump National, the difficulty and the perseverance paid off. The 23-year-old returned to the championship scene of the crime. She played a flawless round of 67, and she chased down Feng and Choi. This time, she rolled home a 25-foot birdie on No. 15 to take the lead. This time, she came to No. 18 and hit her second shot clear of the imposing water – a little too clear.
“I could say that I played probably little bit more relaxed,” Park said afterward. “But here at the final round, there's also the hazard that I couldn't shake that off my head. And maybe because of that, I got a little bit of overshot, as a result.
“But the experience was definitely worth it because based on that experience that I had last year, I think I was able to garner the championship this year.”
This time, Park overcame her miscalculation with a brilliant chip from behind the green, a chip that left her a tap-in par that clinched her first LPGA win and her first major championship. This time, all that regret was exchanged for the most triumphant moment of her young career.
Park’s nickname in Korean is “Dak Gong,” which literally means “shut your mouth and attack.” She did that in the Women's Open at Trump National. And this time, the fickle game rewarded her.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @WWDOD