Keeping Score

Park hits jackpot at Women’s PGA

The American golfing public may not be especially familiar with Sung Hyun Park

KILDEER, Ill. – The American golfing public may not be especially familiar with Sung Hyun Park. Although the South Korean is a big hitter who was the LPGA rookie of the year and co-player of the year last season, she keeps her cap pulled low over what is invariably a poker face.

And while the language barrier is there, that’s not the whole explanation.

“Even speaking in Korean,’’ So Yeon Ryu said, “she’s not really talking much.’’

But some experts think Park is the next great thing on the LPGA tour. 

She certainly made that case at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on Sunday, beating Ryu on the second playoff hole in a duel between the 2017 LPGA co-players of the year (scores).

Sung Hyun Park, David Jones
Sung Hyun Park embraces caddie David Jones after she won the Women’s PGA.

Sung Hyun Park embraces caddie David Jones after she won the Women’s PGA.

Two shots defined the day.

Facing a difficult lie in the weeds next to a pond near the 16th green at Kemper Lakes Golf Club, Park hacked out an improbable pitch to set up a par-saving putt.

“Since there was no water below the ball, I did like what I do with a bunker shot,’’ said Park, the LPGA’s 2017 rookie of the year, through an interpreter. “I felt like, I got this, when I did the shot.’’

Ryu answered by draining a tough downhill putt for birdie on 16. That gave her a two-shot lead with two holes to go.

Then she did the unthinkable for such a steady player. She put her tee shot on the par-3 17th in the water and made double bogey.

“Just drew it a little bit too much,’’ said Ryu, disappointed but not crushed. “This is one of my best performances in my professional career. My biggest regret is 17. I don’t think it was a really bad shot. The ball just drew more than I expected. I did 100 percent effort every shot, every putt. I like looking at the positive side. Keep improving, and one day I want to lift that trophy.’’

With the gaffe, Ryu opened the door for a three-way tie between her, Park and last week’s winner in Arkansas, Nasa Hataoka, who came out of nowhere to shoot 64. Hataoka made two eagles – at Nos. 7 and 11, both par 5s – doubling her season total in that category.

Ryu drained a clutch birdie putt from the fringe on the first playoff hole to knock out Hataoka. Park sank her birdie putt on that hole. After a 20-minute rain delay, Park sank another birdie to win the second major of her two-year career.

Then, the emotions poured out of a young woman who’s generally very composed on the golf course.

She hugged her caddie, David Jones of Northern Ireland, with whom she has a great relationship. She hugged Ryu. And then, Park wiped away the tears. For a good long while.

“It’s been a tough year for me,’’ said Park, who mixed a victory at the Volunteers of America LPGA Texas Classic with five missed cuts in her six previous starts. “Even though it was a really tough year, I think I did really good play this week. And I think all the work I’ve done has paid off today. That’s what really made me cry.’’

With the victory, Park jumped from sixth to second in the Rolex Rankings.

When I asked her about a comment I had heard on TV, that her nickname back in South Korea was Tiger, she chuckled.

“Only my dear friends back in Korea just made a joke like, ‘Oh, Tiger, Tiger.’ I didn’t know the announcers actually said that on TV.’’

Joke or not, Park has a relentless kind of game. She’s fourth in LPGA driving distance. And she played bogey-free in the final 30 holes of the championship, including a final-round 69.

And she did that on a Kemper Lakes course that’s filled with peril. Add the excessive heat that challenged the field all week, and what Park did while others were wilting is all the more impressive.

Brooke Henderson, the ordinarily sunny young Canadian star who had been tied for the lead after 36 holes, lost her cool on the 11th hole on Sunday. After fluffing a chip behind the green, she whacked a wedge so violently into her golf bag that she broke the shaft.

The way she putted, though, that probably was the club that she wanted to take to the woodshed.

In another oddity, Lexi Thompson, Danielle Kang and Michelle Wie, who would have made a nice final trio for TV, teed off at 7:19 a.m. Sunday, the first group off the tee.

Attendance wasn’t overwhelming. But the LPGA, partnering with the PGA to bring its third major to the course where Payne Stewart won the 1989 PGA, put on a good show.

“The players love this course,’’ Ryu said. “It’s so much fun.’’

No one, though, had more fun than Park, who lost her poker face while winning a tournament. 

Herb Gould is a former golf and senior college-sports writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, where his work still appears occasionally, and is a co-founder of Email: Twitter: @HerbGould

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