Thursday, March 30, 2017

Park rejuvenated, motivated and back on top

The Queen Bee is back at work atop another leaderboard.

It’s a perch Inbee Park is fully appreciating after re-evaluating her place in the game during an extended leave last year, a nearly six-month break healing a thumb injury that left her wondering what was left to achieve after winning the Olympic gold medal and earning LPGA Hall of Fame induction.

“It was definitely important,” Park said of her time away. “Because I was really just getting burned out.

“Having some kind of a goal, it was hard for me to find the last couple years. I’ve decided that there has been good motivation. The Rio Olympics, it inspired me a lot. Obviously, going through the injury gave me some appreciation to golf. It’s something I should really appreciate.”

In just her second start since her return to the game, Park leads halfway through the HSBC Women’s Champions in Singapore. With another 5-under-par 67 Friday, she is at 10 under overall. She leads an All-Star cast of proven winners in contention on the Sentosa Golf Club’s Tanjong Course.

Park is one shot ahead of Rolex world No. 2 Ariya Jutanugarn (68), Michelle Wie (69) and Mi Jung Hur (67).

Full-field scores from the HSBC Women’s Champions

She is two shots ahead of Suzann Pettersen (67) and rookie Sung Hyun Park (68), who’s expected to become the next big South Korean star onn the LPGA after dominating the Korean LPGA Tour last year.

Also in contention is world No. 1 Lydia Ko, who put up a 68 to join Ha Na Jang (67), Brooke Henderson (70), Charley Hull (68), Anna Nordqvist (70) and Sei Young Kim (67) in a pack just three shots back.

Park, 28, said last week’s return to the LPGA came with some jitters in a tie for 25th at the Honda LPGA Thailand.

“I guess nervous and excited, because I haven’t played competition golf for a while,” said Park, who won the HSBC Women’s Champions two years ago. “Obviously, to compete in tournament golf, it felt like forever. Never took that kind of break in my whole career, so it was just something different.”

Park is looking to claim her 18th LPGA title, her first since the Lorena Ochoa Invitational 15 months ago.

“I’m always dreaming of leading and holding the trophy by the end of the week,” Park said. “But, obviously, last week was my first start in a while, and I thought this week was going to be like a warm-up week for me. I knew that my long game was there last week, and I needed to work on my short game and my putting. It has been better this week and it is going in the right direction.”

Though Park struggled through the pain of a ligament injury to her left thumb last year, she made her limited starts historic. She didn’t just win Olympic gold in August. She also officially earned her way into the LPGA Hall of Fame in June.

When Park announced after the Olympics that she was shutting down her game the rest of the year, questions abounded about what her future held. What was left to achieve? Was her heart turning toward starting the family she craves? Would she retire?

Having once reigned at world No. 1 for 92 weeks, Park watched her ranking slip to No. 12 in her time away.

“The break, I didn’t really intend it to, but that break actually worked well, especially mentally,” Park said. “Trying to appreciate what I have was really important.”

Park says she doesn’t feel razor sharp yet. One of the game’s great putters, with one of the best short games in the women’s ranks, Park says that part of her game still needs work. But her ball striking’s already looking strong. She has hit all but one fairway in Singapore this week and hit 16 of 18 greens in regulation on Friday.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” Park said. “We are only halfway through.”

Park, though, knows she’s motivated to win. That could change the narrative for the 2017 season.

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