Inbee Park benefits from a lighter tournament schedule

The world’s No. 1-ranked woman’s golfer has barely played half the tournaments as her leading rivals have, but don’t worry about Korean Inbee Park heading into Thursday’s start of the 64th KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

Park has played in only nine tournaments this season, and that was by design. At 29 she’s learned that her body is more vulnerable to injury than it was from 2013 to 2015 when she won this – the second-oldest tournament in women’s golf — three years in a row. Sweden’s Annika Sorenstam, retired since 2008, is the only other player to win three in a row, pulling off the feat from 2003-05.

With 19 career wins on the LPGA tour, including seven major titles, Park was unquestionably the dominant player in women’s golf during her three-year hot streak.

But that was then, and this is now.

“I learned an expensive lesson the last couple years. I just can’t play every week now,’’ said Park during a break in Wednesday’s last day of pre-tournament preparation for the 156 starters. “A couple of injuries the last couple of years got me worried and more cautious of what I can play. Scheduling-wise I didn’t want to push myself so hard.’’

Her tournaments leading in to the third of the LPGA’s five annual majors may only number nine, but they’ve been a good nine. She’s yet to miss a cut and has five top-10 finishes which include a win at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup and a runner-up at the ANA Inspiration — one of the other majors.

Park will be in the featured group on Thursday, teeing off with No. 2-ranked Ariya Jutanugarn, the U.S. Women’s Open champion from Thailand, and defending champion Danielle Kang, who became the first American winner in the tourney in seven years when she triumphed last year at Olympia Fields.

“I’m really happy to play with them,’’ said Park. “They both have good momentum going into this week, and momentum is always a good thing to have in a group.’’

Park and Jutanugarn are among only three players who have top 10 finishes in both of the two majors contested so far this year. In addition to her runner-up finish in the Inspiration Park was ninth in the U.S. Open. Jutanugarn, who tied for fourth in the Inspiration, is the only player to win twice in the LPGA’s first 16 tournaments of 2018.

The only other player to crack the top 10 in the year’s first two majors was England’s Charley Hull, who tied for sixth in the Inspiration and tied for 10th in the Open.

Park, Jutanugarn and Kang will go off Kemper’s No. 1 hole at 8:10 a.m., and tee times will run though 2:40 p.m. so it’ll be a long day of challenging golf. All the players have shown respect for the 39-year old Kemper Lakes course that hosted the late Payne Stewart’s victory in the men’s PGA Championship of 1989.

“It’s a true major championship golf course setting,’’ said Park. “Even par all week is going to be a very good score. I really love this golf course.’’

Park fears that this week’s heavy rains will soften the Kildeer layout and give an advantage to longer hitters like Jutanugarn, but that isn’t really her major concern. Park’s Las Vegas home was burglarized last week. That’s been a bigger worry than the golf tournament.

“I’ve been really stressing about that the last four days,’’ said Park. “Talking to the police, it’s so hard trying to figure out what’s lost when you’re not there — but this is the life we get on the road. A lot of our things are in Korea, so we have to figure that out a little more.’’

Returning to competition at least provides a respite from that problem.

This year’s field is again the strongest and deepest in women’s golf. For the third straight year it includes all of the top 100 money-winners on the LPGA tour this season. It also includes 29 winners of major championships, and those 29 have combined to claim 62 such titles.

Besides Park three of the other starters have won this tournament multiple times – Laura Davies (1994 and 1996), Juli Inkster (1999 and 2000) and Yani Tseng (2008, 2011).

The tourney was known as the LPGA Championship from 1955 until 2016, when KPMG took over sponsorship duties and the PGA of America replaced the LPGA as tournament organizer. Prize money is up to $3,650,000 and Sunday’s champion will pocket $547,500.