Inbee Park: Is Everything Downhill After 30?


Inbee Park is looking her 27th birthday in the face, a benchmark that can and often does signal the beginning of the end of a professional athlete’s active career.  By her own admission she’s at the top of her game, enjoying the fruits of a swing change her husband/coach Gi Hyeob Nam began to put into place in 2011.  She’s sitting at the top of the world rankings for the third time in her career and her current career goal, the Grand Slam, is lofty but certainly seems imminently achievable.

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Park’s long been one of the best putters on the Tour but her ball striking has improved “300 percent” she says since she began implementing that swing change. What perhaps might be the most terrifying for her opponents, though, is at the time they installed the swing changes, Nam told Park that it would take up to three or four years before the new swing fully took hold.

With her third consecutive victory at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, Park’s competitors are seeing that swing change come to fruition. Even in 2013 when Park win six times, including three consecutive major championships, Stacy Lewis says she’s never seen Inbee Park hit the ball like she has this year.

"“Inbee’s always been playing well but what she’s been doing better I think over probably the last six months or so is her ball striking.  You look the last year or two, she rode her putter a lot, she would make everything she looked at and ball striking wasn’t that great. But now the ball striking is catching up with the putting. That’s what you saw especially at Westchester, she hit it really good there. . . she’s not really doing a whole lot wrong right now.”"

Inbee Park has made very clear that the RICOH Women’s British Open is her next target and we can expect her to pull out off the stops at Turnberry in four weeks.

But what about the longer haul?  The lifespan for professional athletes is historically abbreviated.  “Old age” begins early and the power of youth typically eclipses the skill of experience.  Will Inbee Park successfully transit that 30th birthday still in the competitive mix?

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LPGA’s Neil Reid compiled a statistical comparison of Inbee Park and four Hall of Famers, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Se Rei Pak, and Lorena Ochoa that provides a sense of where Inbee Park is at this point in her career as well as what’s possible for Park’s pro golf career in her post-30 future.

In terms of Major championships, Park leads the way with six, with Webb following along with five.

Ochoa had the biggest career money haul before the age of 27 at $13,188,876, but Park is close with $11,373,484.

The win total mark goes to Webb with 26, while Ochoa had 24 and Pak 22, and Park could theoretically get to 17 before her 27th birthday.

Annika Sorenstam. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports

Sorenstam surprisingly ranked last in each category, but the super Swede earned most of her 72 career tournament titles in her 30s and dominated her era like no one before or since.  In some respects, Inbee Park’s pattern more closely resembles Annika Sorenstam’s than either Karrie Webb’s or Park’s personal hero Se Rei Pak.

Reid’s comparison highlights the excellence Webb portrayed even while squaring off against Sorenstam and Pak and underscores each players’ prowess at such a young age. They all put up head-shaking numbers against top competition, and Park is the latest to do so on a grand stage.

Equally important is the competitive athletic sustainability they’ve all demonstrated.  (Here Ochoa exits stage left because she opted out of professional competition before the ago of 30 of for personal reasons.)  Sorenstam, Webb and Pak all remained competitive threats as they played in their thirties.

Eleven of Webb’s LPGA Tour wins, including the Kraft Nabisco Championship, have come after her 30th birthday.  Sorenstam’s record is even more impressive — 49 Tour victories, eight of them Majors, came after her 30th birthday.

Given the similarities between Inbee Park and Annika Sorenstam, it’s exciting to think what Park’s final career totals will look like in another 15 or 20 years. Considering that Park has won five of the last 12 major championships and is only 26, Hall of Famer Patty Berg’s record of 15 could be in considerable danger of being eclipsed.

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