The dominant individual athlete of recent years won again Sunday, and as usual, few noticed. That’s the nature of excellence in women’s golf.
For Inbee Park, the four-shot victory in the U.S. Women’s Open was her third major championship since late March. She couldn’t win more because the other majors haven’t been played yet. Until Park, only two golfers ever had won the first three professional majors of a season: the first was Babe Zaharias and the last was Ben Hogan. Hogan did it 60 years ago.
Part of the reason for Park’s anonymity is that women’s golf is virtually an invisible sport. To hold the interest of Americans, a women’s champion has to be most of the following: talented, American, alluring and personable. Park covers the first requirement just fine, but she is Korean, looks nerdy, is famous for her absence of facial expression and dispatches rivals with the emotion of a professional assassin. Even her name suggests anonymity: There are five Parks on the LPGA Tour this season.
Yet for those few who are paying attention, Inbee Park is compiling a resume that may eventually rank with the best players ever, male or female. Since her tour debut in 2007 she has won eight times, and four of those were major titles: the 2008 US Open plus this year’s Kraft Nabisco, LPGA and — on Sunday, the US Open again, this time by four shots.
If she wins the British Open, scheduled to be played Aug. 1-4 at St. Andrews, Scotland, she will become the first professional golfer, male or female, to complete a grand slam. She might even add a fifth because the LPGA has declared the Evian Masters, to be played in France in September, a major this year. Park is a former Evian champion.
There is no particular reason why Park should enter the Brit as anything but a prohibitive favorite. Her scoring average is 69.64. That’s first on the LPGA tour. She’s won $1.5 million this year alone — first again — is the reigning Rolex Player of the Year and is the surest of sure things to repeat that honor.
One of the best ways to measure dominance in sport is via standard deviation. In brief, how far ahead of the average performance is a player? In Park’s three major victories this season, she has finished 2.7, 1.8 and 2.8 standard deviations better than the field average for those completing the entire tournament. As it applies to performance, there is about a one-half of one percent chance of somebody exceeding the field norm by 2.7 standard deviations. There’s about a four percent chance of somebody being 1.7 standard deviations outside the norm. Inbee Park has done it three times in three tries. Only one other women’s player all season has bettered the field average in a major by as much as 2 standard deviations.
How does Park compare with the men? Adam Scott won this year’s Masters with a performance that was 2.2 standard deviations better than the field. Justin Rose won the men’s Open with a score that was 2.1 standard deviations better than average. But in the Masters, Rose tied for 25th, 0.07 standard deviations better than the field. In the Open, Scott tied for 45th, 0.25 standard deviations worse than the field.
You could create a formula to rank golfers all time for peak performance based on how well they do in majors. By such a formula, Inbee Park already ranks in the top 25. If she wins at St. Andrews, she’d move into the top 20 ahead of such names as Gary Player, Lorena Ochoa and Sam Snead. Not bad for a player still in her mid 20s. It’s time for people to take notice.