LANCASTER, Pa. (AP) – Inbee Park's focus sharpens during major championship weeks, and the South Korean is dialed in for the U.S. Women's Open.
Park is back atop the rankings for the third time in her career and leads the LPGA Tour with three victories this season. But the majors have been where she has flourished. Her first win came at the 2008 Women's Open, and she has six major titles overall including five of the last 12.
When the championship kicks off Thursday morning, Park will face stiff competition in the 156-player field that includes nine previous champions, including last year's winner, Michelle Wie. Other winners include Na Yeon Choi (2012), Paula Creamer (2010), Laura Davies (1987), Eun-Hee Ji (2009), Cristie Kerr (2007), Birdie Kim (2005), So Yeon Ryu (2011) and Karrie Webb (2000, 2001) .
Other players to watch include 18-year-old New Zealander Lydia Ko, who spent time ranked first on the LPGA Tour this season before being overtaken by Park. Brittany Lincicome won the ANA Inspiration in April in California and fellow American Stacey Lewis finished second to Wie in the Women's Openlast year. Standout South Korean rookie Sei Young Kim had her caddie removed from the championship by the United States Golf Association for taking photos of internal notes on the course setup.
Park favors the pressurized atmosphere of the majors and willingly increases her preparation for the tour's premier events.
"That's the tournament that you put 100 percent of your energy and strategy and everything," Park said of the tour's five majors. "When I come to major championships, I work extra hard and I try to look at the course a little bit better."
Park said she's boosted by previous wins in major tournaments.
"Having good results helps, that gives me a lot of confidence going into other major championships thinking that I've done good on major championships so I can do well in another good one," she said.
In addition to embracing the pressure of championship week, Park has taken time to get the feel of Lancaster Country Club, a traditional 1920 design by William Flynn that has plenty of elevation changes, sloping greens and troublesome rough.
Park believes the more challenging the layout, the better she can play.
"I am good at the tough golf courses," she said. "I am good under the pressure. I just try to keep talking to myself that way and try to give myself the confidence coming into the major championships."
Park showed early in her career she can adapt to changing conditions. At 19 years, 11 months, 17 days, she was the youngest Women's Open winner at Interlachen in 2008 and won her second Open in 2013 at Sebonack. There's no doubt Park has a special season working, capturing the KPMG Women's PGA Championship last month and increasing her career win total to 15 events.
But Park's campaign hit a bump two weeks ago when she missed her first cut of the year at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. That rough patch seemingly strengthened her resolve heading into championship week.
"I putted really bad two weeks ago, and that definitely gave me somewhat like a wake-up call. Because I haven't really had a bad tournament or a really bad week," she said.
Park first saw the course five weeks ago during a dry spell. Now, the players are seeing a different, more challenging layout after almost eight inches of rain fell on the course in June.
The rains mean softer greens and fairways, she said.
"I feel like I'm playing two different golf courses," Park said. "Back then it was running hard and fast, so it was a little bit different. The greens are very slopey here, so when it gets hard and fast it gets really tough."
The consensus among most players in the field is that the old-fashioned, tree-lined layout in the heart of Amish Country will pose a stiff challenge, whether because of recent rain or the tricky greens that will likely become tougher to navigate if conditions dry out.
Wie enjoyed her year as U.S. Women's Open champ but enters this championship coming off injury, illness and a less than stellar season. Regardless, she's ready to put the good feelings from last year a Pinehurst away and try to defend her crown.
"It's definitely a different beast this week," Wie said. "It's going to be a really great mix of holes."
Lewis, who has eight top-10 finishes this year and 12 career wins, believes the Lancaster Country Club layout favors her game.
"The rough is long. It's wet. It's sticky. I think off the tee and especially into some of the greens, you've got to be able to hit shots, hit some fades, hit some draws," Lewis said. "I think it's going to favor more of a left-to-right shot overall, so I think that sets up for my game really well."
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