Philadelphia, PA – When someone is shooting for the unprecedented, others take notice.
The PGA Tour is in Akron, Ohio, this week for one of the biggest non-majors of the season, the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Forty-nine of the top-50 players in the world are in the field, including reigning British Open champion Phil Mickelson and perennial headliner Tiger Woods, but many of those golf heavyweights will keep a wandering eye on the Old Course at St. Andrews, where LPGA Tour sensation Inbee Park takes aim at history.
The women's game is typically overshadowed by the big-hitting boys of the PGA Tour, especially in the United States, where a lack of homegrown ladies' talent drives away the casual fan. But every so often, a sporting event transcends gender, nationality, popularity and relative ability.
Inbee Park at the Women's British Open is such an event.
The 25-year-old South Korean is dominating the sport in a manner not seen since Tiger in the early 2000s. She already has six wins this season, including three straight in June, and has captured the season's first three majors. With a win this weekend, Park would become the first golfer (male or female) to win four professional major championships in a season.
"As a player, you would like to know if she's human a little bit, to see if she actually feels the nerves like the rest of us do," world No. 2 and top American Stacy Lewis said recently, inadvertently drawing a parallel between Park and Woods, another athlete whose extraterrestrial talents may or may not preclude his membership in this species.
At the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Mickelson made a more direct comparison:
"It's pretty incredible. It's hard enough just to win one major, as I've found out throughout my career, and to win three in a row like that is just amazing. If she's able to do it, what a great place to do it, at the home of golf at St. Andrews, if she's able to get that fourth. I still think the greatest feat in golf was Tiger holding all four major championships at the same time. That's just very difficult to comprehend. That's so strong. And for her to do it in the same calendar year is amazing."
That's not empty praise from Mickelson. As he admitted, he knows how difficult it is to win majors, having just secured his first British Open title courtesy of a spectacular final round at Muirfield. That comeback win moved Lefty within one title of the career grand slam, which he will attempt to secure at Pinehurst in 2014, where he stumbled to the first of a record, six U.S. Open runner-ups.
Again, winning majors is hard.
Tiger, as Mickelson alluded, is one of five PGA Tour players with the career grand slam and the only player to hold all four men's major titles at once; a feat so rare it carries his namesake: the Tiger Slam, which he completed at the 2001 Masters. But even Tiger, possibly a member of Loki's army, hasn't won a major since 2008, at the U.S. Open.
How many casual golf fans know the name Mickey Wright?
She is the only LPGA Tour player to hold all four majors at the same time, which she accomplished over two seasons, with the final win coming at the Western Open in 1962.
Wright racked up 13 major titles and 82 wins during her LPGA career, yet she isn't a household name; the byproduct of playing on the LPGA Tour, especially when media coverage was scant. But Park is firmly in the spotlight this week, poised to make the leap to national notoriety.
"I don't know her personally," Rickie Fowler said in Ohio. "I know she's been playing well and it's pretty impressive what she's doing. It doesn't matter what stage you're on, to pick out certain events and go ahead and go win them and have a chance to win ... that's not that bad."
Park has her work cut out for her, as she opened with rounds of 69-73 at St. Andrews to sit a 2-under-par 142, at least eight shots off the lead entering the weekend.
Typically, Park outlasts the field with her poised demeanor, extraordinary putting and consistent up-and-down swing, where she seems to take the old teaching trick of ringing the bell to heart. But she hasn't been as steady of late, leading to a tie for 14th at the LPGA Classic and a tie for 33rd at the Marathon Classic in her last two starts, with the former result snapping a three-event win streak.
But Park has the game and the disposition, not to mention some of that old Tiger intimidation factor, to turn it around in a moment's notice. If she wins this weekend, she moves further into the spotlight, pulling the LPGA Tour with her.
"Sometimes all the media and all the interviews, those are the toughest thing for me, but once you really start to do it a lot and start to get used to it, I can find some fun in those parts, too," she admitted before the tournament. "Because golf and playing golf on the golf course is the easiest thing for me, and that's something I'm so used to, that's why it was always easy. But I'm getting used to the other parts of golf, also. Yeah, it's getting there."
Park's game is already there and it's drawing the attention of the boys in Akron.
"Personally, I'd love to see her do it," said Rory McIlroy. "I think it would be great for the game of golf, great for ladies' golf. Yeah, I mean, I really hope she does. I think a lot of people hope that she goes on and does it because it's something that may never happen again. It's very impressive. I'll be keeping up to date this week."
Hopefully, we all will.