Inbee Park's attempt to become the first golfer, male or female, to win a Grand Slam in golf since 1930 came apart in the first round on the back nine of the Ricoh Women's British Open. The 25-year-old who had won the first three majors of the year got into a bind that all golfers, from high handicappers to multi-major champions, sometimes are unable to avoid.
Park was suddenly thinking and swinging at the same time. The combination makes it difficult to win any tournament, let alone a major when one is going for four in a row. Park was trying to do that at the Old Course in St. Andrews, the so-called home of golf. It sure feels like that when one is there. Bobby Jones won the British Amateur there in 1930, when it was part of the Grand Slam. He won the Slam that year and then retired. Jones was 28 years old.
Jones wrote something pertinent to what happened to Park. He said he could play decently with one swing thought, but played his best when he had no swing thoughts. His mind was clutter-free. He was focused on his target and he swung away. Park looked that way as she won the first three majors this year and she looked that way, and felt that way, when she reached six-under-par through 10 holes of her first round at the Old Course.
But then she started missing drives to the right. She lost the feel of her swing and the clutter clattered in her mind. Greg Norman used to call these extra and unwanted thoughts "mental gremlins." The 25-year-old Park was not amused. What was going on? She tried, understandably, to come up with an answer on that back nine in the first round.
She couldn't. Park started to make poor swings that led to bogeys. She started to three-putt the Old Course's massive greens. She double-bogied the 17th hole, the famous Road Hole. She did finish with a birdie, but shot three-under 69. She'd given up her startling start–or maybe it wasn't so startling given her accomplishments before arriving in St. Andrews.
What was startling, and it surely startled Park, was that she couldn't stop her mind from racing. Where does the swing go when it goes? How could she find her way back? What happened to what the top-drawer writer Paul Gallico called "The Feel" in a classic essay of the same title?
"I was hitting it so good on the practice round and then I didn't really miss any balls," Park said after her unexpected stumble. "Yeah, I thought I was really prepared and that I was really ready, but those couple of bad shots really shocked me, and I really wanted to fix them right away, and couldn't really concentrate on the greens when I hit those shots. Yeah, I've learned my lesson. Good thing I've got my time to fix that today and tomorrow."
However, Park wasn't able to fix what had gone wrong. She shot 73-74-78 the rest of the way and tied for 42nd place, 14 shots behind winner Stacy Lewis. Lewis closed with two beautiful birdies to win by two shots over Hee Young Park and Na Yeon Choi. It's rarely easy to neutralize the mental gremlins once they take over one's mind. Park handled all the attention and pressure on her all week with the grace that has distinguished her, but she wasn't able to recover from what transpired on the back nine that first round.
"I really lost my concentration in the middle of the round there through 13 to like the 16th, 17th hole," Park had said on Thursday. "I really just wanted to fix the swing. I couldn't concentrate on the greens."
Park herself provided evidence that she lost her chance for the Grand Slam when the extraneous thoughts infiltrated what had for so long been her calm golfing mind. She was asked after the last round if, looking back, she could come up with when things went awry.
"It would have been probably the back nine for the first round," she said. "Yeah, I mean, it's just a couple bad drives, and I was really having trouble on the greens after that."
Thinking about her previously untroubled swing led to her losing focus on the greens, that is. She was thinking golf, not playing golf.
There went Park's run at the Grand Slam of golf. This shouldn't take away from what she accomplished before the Women's British Open, but it does confirm that when the swing slips, the mind can get into a frenzy. Good luck trying to stop the cycle. Now the mind is running amok, and so is the swing.
No wonder golf is so hard. No wonder golf is so bewildering.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association's first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada's Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round's on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf's Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein