By Peter Rutherford
INCHEON, South Korea (Reuters) – Park Sung-hyun has a small tattoo on her left wrist, the Latin word “lucete” — “shine”. The South Korean golfer endured the needles during the dark days of her career, a reminder that no matter how bad things got she had the talent to succeed.
After a 2016 season that has included seven wins on the domestic KLPGA Tour, top 10 finishes at three global majors, $1 million in prize money and a jump to number eight in the world rankings, it appears there will be no need for further ink.
Regarded at home as a potential successor to Park In-bee as the next Korean world number one, Sung-hyun’s game could hardly be more different to that of the Olympic champion.
While In-bee has racked up 17 U.S. LPGA Tour wins on the back of rock-solid iron play and impeccable putting, Sung-hyun batters the ball a mile off the tee, leaving her in prime position to attack pins with a wedge or short iron.
When the two Parks squared off in a matchplay event last year, it was Sung-hyun who came out on top, thrashing the seven-times major champion 5&3.
Despite standing only 1.70 meters tall, the willowy Park is a match for the power hitters on the LPGA Tour such as Lexi Thompson and Brittany Lincicome.
Thompson, defending champion at the LPGA/KLPGA co-sanctioned KEB Hana Bank Championship, has been impressed by the Korean, particularly her length with the ‘big stick’.
“I’ve played with her quite a few times … and her game is unbelievable. Very long off the tee, has a nice high ball flight, stops it basically from everywhere that you put her,” she told a news conference. “No weaknesses.”
Even by typically reserved Korean standards Park is quiet, painfully shy almost. She has previously said she struggles to adapt to new environments and voiced concerns about life on tour in the United States, particularly due to her lack of English.
At the U.S. Women’s Open in July, Park and her temporary American caddie Jeff King were forced to use hand gestures and draw pictures on a notepad to get around the language barrier.
Such communication issues would be a recipe for disaster for most golfers — 18 holes of uncomfortable silence, botched yardages and missed reads, but for the introverted Park it was probably a match made in heaven.
She finished third, two strokes behind winner Brittany Lang.
“Golf terminology is in English so on the course there wasn’t a big inconvenience, it wasn’t as difficult as I imagined,” she told a news conference on Friday.
While it was once automatic for the top Korean players to switch to the U.S. LPGA, Park has yet to make a decision where she will play next year.
“In weighing up whether I will go to the LPGA, there are two factors I consider the most,” she said. “The first is the change in environment and the second is the language barrier.
“It’s a factor I’m considering very seriously and that’s why I feel I would need a lot of preparation.”
PGA golf instructor Robin Symes told Reuters that Park’s swing mechanics and athletic body type were tailor made for monster drives, which typically blow past rivals on the Korean tour by 40 yards, averaging out at around 270.
Park had worked hard with her coach Lee Sang-woo to build a backswing that stored power efficiently through good shoulder rotation and coiling effect, then released that energy to the ball with perfect downswing sequencing, he added.
Symes, who is based just outside Seoul and has worked with some of Korea’s top players, including 2012 U.S. Women’s Open champion Choi Na-yeon, says Park is one player he would happily pay to watch.
“No limits,” he said. “Her potential is up there with the best of them. She could be the first golfer to play solely on the Korean tour and become number one in the world.”
(Additional reporting by Chae Yun-hwan; Editing by Ian Ransom)