By Tim Booth
AP Sports Writer
SAMMAMISH, Wash. — No matter the outcome, the first round of the Women’s PGA Championship will be memorable for Inbee Park.
It’s the round that Park needs to complete to be eligible for the LPGA Hall of Fame and become the youngest player ever to reach eligibility at age 27. It’s the rest of the LPGA’s second major of the season that is a major question mark for the three-time defending champion of the event.
“I will try so hard to enjoy it. I think there is definitely going to be some nerves that come. Obviously it’s wrapping up what I’ve done for the last 10 years. It’s a very important day and going to be a very memorable day for me,” Park said. “It’s going to be hard. I really can’t imagine myself walking up to 18 and just actually waiting for the last putt.”
Instead of all the discussion being whether Park can become the first female golfer to ever win the same major championship four times in a row, the question is whether the South Korean star and her injured thumb will be able to last more than one round at Sahalee Country Club.
Park said the inflammation in her left thumb has improved since she last played in the Volvik Championship on May 27. But her round during Tuesday’s pro-am at Sahalee was the first 18-hole round Park has played since withdrawing from that event after shooting 84.
The Volvik Championship was the second straight event that Park withdrew after the first round. She sounded confident Wednesday that won’t happen again.
“I’m going to do my best to play as many holes as I can. That’s what I try and do every time I play,” Park said. “I feel like this week is such a better week than the weeks I’ve had before. I’m very positive that I can play some better golf than the last couple of weeks.”
With Park’s thumb injury potentially taking her out of contention, the bulk of the attention will fall to No. 1 ranked Lydia Ko and Thailand’s rising star Ariya Jutanugarn, the winner of her past three tournaments.
Ko has held the top spot in the world rankings for 33 straight weeks and claimed the last two majors, winning at The Evian Championship last season and then taking advantage of Jutanugarn’s late struggles to win the ANA Inspiration in early April. A win this week would make Ko the first player since Park in 2013 to win three straight majors.
Ko said Sahalee reminders her of Vancouver Golf Club about 2 hours north where Ko is a two-time champion.
“Something about the West Coast I really love it. I would love to live on the West Coast later in my career. And maybe that’s the thing that kind of brings it out,” Ko said. “But obviously coming here and realizing that it’s a lot like Vancouver I think it gives me a confidence.”
Jutanugarn was the first player since Inbee Park in 2013 to win three consecutive tournaments and the first ever to make her first three career victories consecutive.
Jutanugarn nearly had her first victory come in a major at the ANA Inspiration earlier this year only to blow a two-shot lead over the final three holes and finish fourth while Ko celebrated.
The collapse at the ANA was another learning experience for the 20-year-old who missed 10 straight cuts at one point last season and is now the hottest player on tour.
“Especially last year I was never happy to play golf. But right now I (am) really happy, no matter what the result I’m just very happy with it,” Jutanugarn said. “Only key I have to do is I have to be nice to myself. So not complain about every single shot.”
She’s also taking a conservative approach with the narrow fairways and claustrophobic sight lines provided by Sahalee’s thousands of trees. Jutanugarn said she will go without a driver this week, instead relying on a 3-wood she can hit 270 yards.
“The golf course is so hard for me. I played (Monday) and I feel like the course was too narrow,” Jutanugarn said. “But great golf course, great shape, the greens are so good. But a lot of trees and big trees. Pretty hard for me because I have to shape my shot a lot.”