As the sun set over Bedminster New Jersey and Trump National Golf Club Sunday night. Sung Hyun Park was trying to absorb the fact that she was the United States Women’s Open champion.
“To be honest with you, I still cannot believe this is happening,” Park said through a translator during a post-round interview. I almost feel like I’m floating on a cloud in the sky.
“Of course, I did have many winnings in other tournaments but winning here at U.S. Open means so much more and for that, I am extremely grateful and happy.”
Not many American golf fans know a lot about the 23-year old Park; she joined the LPGA Tour only this year. But her resume is impressive, to say the least.
She’s won 10 professional tournaments in her native South Korea. Last year she led the Women’s Open at the halfway mark before finishing tied for third, one shot out of the playoff between Anna Nordqvist and eventual champion Brittany Lang.
Prior to this year’s Women’s Open, she had already recorded three top-five LPGA finishes, including a tie for second at the LPGA Volvik Championship in Michigan in late May.
At Trump National, Park was seven shots behind Shanshan Feng heading after36 holes before shooting 67-67 on the weekend to score a two-shot win over 17-year old amateur and countrywoman Hye Jin Choi, who was bidding to become the youngest Women’s Open champion in history and only the second amateur to claim that title Mi Jung Hur and world number-one So Yeon Ryu tied for third place four shots back, to give South Korea the first four places on the leaderboard.
Carlota Ciganda of Spain and Jeongeun6 Lee of South Korea shared fifth place with Feng, who hails from China. Sei Young Kim, Mirim Lee, and Amy Yang, all from South Korea, complete the top 10. All told, South Korea, which had 29 players in the field, the most of any nation apart from the United States, placed 12 of them in the top 20.
The top finisher among the 55 Americans was Marina Alex, who tied for 11th place. It marked the first time in the 72-year history of the Women’s Open that no American finished in the top 10.
Two other American competitors placed in the top 20; Lizette Salas tied for 15th and Cristie Kerr shared 19th place. Stacy Lewis, who was one shot out of the lead just past the midway point of her third round, imploded when she took a triple bogey-seven at the 11th hole before finishing her round with a 10 at the par-5 18th. She finished the championship tied for 27th place.
The results of the Women’s Open serve to highlight a trend that has been emerging for well over a decade. Americans are no longer as prominent in the upper echelons of women’s golf as they were a quarter century ago. That’s due in part the increasing opportunities for women in sports; which is a good thing. However, there are only so many young women (or young men for that matter) who have the physical gifts to be an elite athlete. And in today’s world of increasing athletic specialization (a story for another day) fewer young athletes are selecting golf as their primary sport; they’re choosing to play basketball, soccer, or softball instead.
By contrast, in South Korea, aspiring young athletes play golf, in part due to the impact of Se Ri Pak; when she emigrated to the United States in 1998 and she changed women’s golf forever.
As of this week, South Korea has nine players ranked in the top 20 in the world (Park is ranked fifth). The U.S. has four; Lexi Thompson (third), Kerr (14th). Lewis (17th), and Danielle Kang (19th).
There have been dominant American players in the past and there will be again. But the era of American dominance in this sport is gone, most likely forever.