Monday, June 30, 2008

EDINA, Minn. (AP) — Inbee Park gazed at the names on the silver trophy that now belongs to her, amazed that someone who only learned how to play golf 10 years ago could join such a select group as U.S. Women's Open champions.

One name in particular meant the world to her.

Se Ri Pak wasn't at Interlachen Country Club on Sunday when the 19-year-old Park made three birdies on the back nine to pull away for a four-shot victory over Helen Alfredsson. It was the first time since Pak won the Women's Open in 1998 that she missed the cut.

Even so, Park couldn't have won without her.

"I really would like to thank Se Ri for what she's done for golf, for Korean golf," Park said. "Ten years ago, I was watching her winning this event on TV. I didn't know anything about golf back then. But I was watching her. It was very impressive for a little girl. I just thought that I could do it, too."

Pak was 20 when she captured the Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, setting off a craze in South Korea. Not since Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open has a single player inspired a nation of golfers.

Park became the fifth South Korean to win an LPGA Tour major, the second only to the list of American major champions. And she replaced Pak as the youngest winner of the U.S. Women's Open, still two weeks away from her 20th birthday.

"I have no idea what's happening right now," Park said after closing with a 2-under 71, the only player to break par at Interlachen all four rounds. "I am very honored to win this championship as a first win for my career. And hopefully, there will be a lot more coming up. This is a special tournament for me, and I won't forget this moment."

Park finished at 9-under 283 and won $585,000, the richest prize in women's golf. She became the third player in the past six years to make the Women's Open their first LPGA Tour victory, joining Birdie Kim in 2005 at Hilary Lunke in 2003.

It was a day that Stacy Lewis and Paula Creamer won't soon forget, either.

Lewis was poised to make history of her own as the first player to win a major in her professional debut. The former NCAA champion from Arkansas, an inspiring player who overcame back surgery after graduating high school, Lewis took a one-shot lead into the final round and already was two shots behind after just two holes.

She was 80 yards short of the green after two shots on the par-5 second hole and still made double bogey after two bad chips and three putts, one from 15 yards in the fairway. Still tied for the lead through seven holes, she bogeyed the next two and never recovered on her way to a 78 to tie for third.

"I finished third at the U.S. Open, my first pro event," Lewis said. "It's kind of hard to be upset."

Creamer had far more reason to be shell-shocked.

She is 21 and a seasoned pro, winning six times in four years since joining the tour before her class graduated high school. Presented with her best chance of winning her first major, Creamer took two double bogeys on the front nine for a 41, and only a late birdie allowed her to get her first top 10 in a Women's Open. She shot 78 and tied for sixth.

Three years ago when Creamer started the final round one shot out of the lead, she shot 79. Her scoring average in the final round of the U.S. Women's Open is 75.2

"It's probably the most disappointed I've been in a very long time," she said.

Alfredsson finished second after a 75. She played with Park in the second-to-last group, two shots behind, but took 35 putts in the final round and was never closer than two shots after the third hole.

"She played fantastic," Alfredsson said of Park. "She was very calm, never changed anything. And really, that's very impressive for a 19-year-old. She's going to win a lot more."

Annika Sorenstam won't win any more U.S. Women's Open titles unless she comes out of retirement, but she ended with a bang. She holed out from 199 yards with a 6-iron for eagle on her final hole, even though it only meant breaking 80. She shot 78 and tied for 24th.

Park's final birdie was a simple up-and-down from behind the 18th green, and she raised both arms, still stunned at her victory. Moments later, Jeong Jang and I.K. Kim raced onto the green and doused her with beer.

Park's mother, Song Kim, was with her all week at Interlachen and celebrated a milestone victory. Her father couldn't make it, staying home to watch on television, which was appropriate.

After all, that's where this journey began.

Park was a 9-year-old growing up in a small town outside Seoul with her younger sister and parents. It was 10 years ago when she woke up in the middle of the night from the shouts and cheers coming from the living room of their tiny apartment.

It was 3 a.m., and her parents were watching Pak become the first South Korean to win the U.S. Women's Open. She sat down with them, half asleep, but certainly paying attention.

"When she made a putt, they were screaming," Park said. "So I really could not sleep."

Two days later, she placed her tiny hands around a golf club for the first time at a nearby driving range. Four months later, she was competing in junior events, once shooting 128. Park moved to central Florida a few years later, and she won a U.S. Junior Girls title.

On Sunday, she wrapped her hands around the most important trophy in women's golf.

"Really, I can't believe I just did this," she said.

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