Inbee Park leads LPGA, PGA in putting
Maybe the most impressive part is that she's not perfect. She moves her head, a classic golf sin. She shifts her weight, hardly standard putting practice. Basically, she walks up and hits it.
The same way. Every time.
And not so coincidentally, Inbee Park's putts find the hole more often than any man's or woman's on their respective pro tours, with 1.703 average putts per green in regulation.
As Park attempts this week at the Women's British Open to do what no golfer has done since 1930 -- the year Bobby Jones won the Grand Slam -- putting gurus marvel at the simplicity, consistency and calm with which the LPGA's top-ranked player has handled the greens.
"Nothing in 60-odd years of putting fundamentals has changed," said Dave Stockton, who was one of the game's great putters as a touring pro, author of "Unconscious Putting," and now coaches one of the most infuriating parts of the game for many of its top men's and women's players.
She has her own individual style with her left hand low, but I think the attention should start with her demeanor. … You can tell she is really enjoying what she’s doing and not getting ahead of herself and not letting the moment overwhelm her.Dave Stockton
"No great revelations make you a better putter," Stockton said. "It's still basically a mental exercise, different from the rest of the game."
Park, 25, who in winning the first three majors of the year has matched the feat of the great Babe Didrikson Zaharias (in 1950, when only three majors were played), is hardly robotic, but she is easygoing. She is also friendly and funny, according to her closest friends, but hardly demonstrative.
More than anything, Park is composed, another trait that translates directly to the green.
"She has her own individual style with her left hand low," Stockton said, "but I think the attention should start with her demeanor. I've never worked with her but what I watch with her and what I like is her approach to the game. I think the key to her success, whether you're talking about her short game or long game, is that you can tell she is really enjoying what she's doing and not getting ahead of herself and not letting the moment overwhelm her."
Anne Cain, a master instructor at the PGA Tour Academy at the World Golf Village and one of just nine female instructors recognized among the top 100 by Golf Magazine, said she believes Park's life off the course also directly relates to her putting.
"People tend to overlook the personal life aspect, but when things are going well, you're not stressed and worrying," she said. "The fact that her fiancé [fellow South Korean Gi Hyeob Nam] is on the road with her, is her confidante and her swing coach, that balances her.
"That can be any significant other, a coach, caddie, mentor. Having someone steady as a rock is important. At the end of the day, she knows 'someone cares about me and loves me, regardless of how I do.' "
Solheim Cup assistant captain and ESPN analyst Dottie Pepper, a two-time winner of the Kraft Nabisco Championship, likens Park to Fred Couples in the way they channel their personalities into their games. And while the LPGA and Park's sponsors might secretly wish for Park to flash a bit more charisma on the course, Pepper said that would be a mistake.
"Great players play to their personalities," she said. "If Inbee acted demonstrative, it would be a disservice to herself."
And that putting for dough part of the adage? Well, Park always looks as if she's out on an afternoon of mini-golf with her pals. And when the stakes are highest?
Park clinched the LPGA Championship in early June with an 18-foot birdie putt on the third hole of the sudden-death playoff after bogeying three of the last six holes in regulation.
At the U.S. Women's Open three weeks later, Park made birdie putts of 6, 30, 15, 20, 1 and 12 feet in the second round. In the final round, she dropped birdie putts on the ninth and 10th holes to take a six-stroke lead and all but sew up what would be a four-stroke victory over I.K. Kim.
"She probably doesn't place extra value on any one putt, and the key word is value," said David Orr, coach of 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose. "She's not thinking, 'This putt is for $1.2 million.' It's a putt, so she just goes through her routine or process and treats it like a putt. Great putters are not results-oriented, they're process-oriented."
Saying that Park just waltzes up and lets it go is over-simplifying a bit. Her ability to read the greens and control the tempo of the ball, as well as her own rhythm on the swing, is a large part of why nearly every Park putt looks as if it has a chance to go in.
"Give her credit," Cain said. "Before she ever hits it, she's obviously reading the putt well, assessing the putt well and then she gets the ball started on line with the correct speed."
At this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship, which Park won by four strokes, she sunk 20 birdie putts in four rounds.
"I think her tempo is really great," runner-up and practice partner So Yeon Ryu said. "It's always consistent. And she taught me that when she is putting, the weight is a little bit on the left side. She looks like 70 [percent on the left] and 30 [on the right], and she says before, her weight was like 50-50 but now she changed it and her weight has moved a little bit more to the left side. She said that has really helped her putting."
Park said she has never had a regular putting coach.
"And I hope she never gets one," Stockton said with a laugh. "She thinks she knows how to do it and really, there's no right or wrong. If there was, the wrong way one would be that you're trying too hard."
When her head movement is noted, he said, "it's just announcers giving some excuse why she missed one. You could really mess her up by telling her to keep her head still. Then she's thinking and it's not natural.
"I'd tell her not to change anything."
But before we slide down that slippery slope where we anoint Park a natural, let us not forget she struggled during a 14-month period between the summers of 2011 and 2012, during which she failed to finish among the top 10 in 16 straight LPGA tournaments.
"We don't come out of our parent's womb as great putters," Orr said. "We may have the DNA to run a little faster or jump a little higher than the kid next door, but putting is a learned skill, no matter the myths. It's a touch, like the skill of throwing our keys onto the couch when we walk through the front door. You do it the same way every time.
"One thing about great golfers, they also tend to memorize putts. Tiger Woods is a perfect example of someone who remembers really well. It's part of the reason why he wins at the same venues all the time."
Park briefly experimented with a belly putter early last year, but has used the Odyssey White Ice Sabertooth putter for the better part of two years, during which time she took firm hold of the LPGA lead in average putts per round (28.52) and average putts per green in regulation.
But all agree it's not the putter that has made her the best in the world.
"I'd like to give credit to the equipment, but it's more about emotion and confidence," Cain said.
And it is why putting can continue to carry Park a long way, Pepper said, particularly as she attempts to make history on some of the most challenging greens there are at St. Andrews.
"Day in and day out, you're going to wake up not feeling it occasionally," she said. "Most times, it will affect your long game but if your short game can hold you in those weeks when you're not completely clicking, you can win with your 'B' stuff.''
Stacy Lewis, who held the No. 1 ranking for four weeks before Park took it over in April following the Kraft Nabisco win, has seen it all too clearly.
"She's just always there, always giving herself a chance, and nothing really [seems] to faze her," Lewis said two days after Park won the NW Arkansas Championship in the home state of Lewis' alma mater, the University of Arkansas. "That's the big thing. She just makes putt after putt after putt, and she's there at the end of the day."