RANCHO MIRAGE, Ca. — Inbee Park may not be the best player in women’s golf right now, but from where she is standing, it’s a local call.
At the Kraft Nabisco Championship Sunday afternoon, the ripples from the traditional “Champion’s Plunge” into Poppie’s Pond at the 18th green had barely reached the banks before a reshuffling of the Rolex World Ranking told the story. Park’s runaway four-shot victory at Mission Hills CC will move the 24-year-old South Korean to No. 2, only a half-step behind Stacy Lewis, when the Rolex World Rankings are released Monday. Nothing suggests she has not arrived for the long haul and a battle for No. 1.
“That’s the place that I’ve always wanted and I only have one more spot to go,” Park said. “That brings a lot of momentum, keeps momentum going for me, especially after this week. I felt a lot of confidence with my swing and with my putting. Everything has been going the right way this season. It feels good.”
Park now has two wins in five tournament appearances in 2013. That goes nicely with last year’s two victories, six runner-ups and 12 top 10s in 24 events.
With the KNC and 2008 U.S. Women Open, she owns two career majors. She won last year’s LPGA Official Money title and the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. On the strength of four wins in her last 16 events, there isn’t a hotter hand in the game.
With steady, solid shot-making and a seemingly laser-guided putting stroke, she put together rounds of 70-67-67-69–273 overwhelmed the opposition.
“I’ve seen Inbee do this before,” said top-ranked Lewis, who finished a disappointing T-32 at 1-under. “When she rolls it, you just can’t beat her. She’s the best putter on tour. The course here is a little softer than normal, so I think that’s to her advantage. She doesn’t hit it as high as some other people, but when she’s rolling it, you are not going to beat her.”
No one even came close.
When it was over, runner-up So Yeon Ryu was four shots back, 11-under after a closing 65. Caroline Hedwall (68) took third, 9-under and six behind.
Starting Sunday’s round with a three-shot cushion over Lizette Salas, and a six-swing advantage over the next closest challenger, Park saw to it that drama never had a chance.
“She looks like she played another golf course,” Ryu said of her friend, countrywoman and regular practice partner. “This golf course is really hard, and before we start this tournament she really worried because her ball flight is a little low. She said, ‘I don’t think I can stop it on the greens.’ But she hit it so well, I think she was lying to me.”
For all practical purposes, the day was over after the first hole. Park birdied while Salas, losing a battle with a tree, made double-bogey. The three-shot swing sent the leader six shots clear of the field. Another birdie at No. 2 made it seven.
“Well, that made my day much easier, that’s for sure,” Park said. “I holed a long one on the first hole, and a birdie start is always a good thing, and I never really shot over par starting with the birdie, so that gave me a lot of confidence.”
From there, the field was reduced to being little more than cans strung to a bumper, dragging along behind. Salas, the second-year pro from the University of Southern California and nearby Azusa, Calif., struggled to a final-round 79 and fell back to 2 under and 25th place.
“Well, obviously I’m not very pleased with it,” Salas said. “Very disappointed in myself. It was one of those days where I could have gone from bad to worse, and starting off with a double wasn’t in the game plan.”
Only Ryu, with a seven-birdie, no-bogey charge, would apply any pressure, getting within four shots. But when Rye birdied No. 14 to generate even a suggestion of doubt, Park answered almost immediately by rolling in a 20-foot putt at 12 and a 10 footer at 13.
With Park’s lead back to back to six with five holes to play, she could have spent the rest of the afternoon contemplating her diving form.
“It was great,” she said of the big splash into the pond, where she filled an empty water bottle to save for her father. “That‘s the pond I’ve always wanted to jump in, and I finally jumped. It was a little bit chilly, though.”