When Inbee Park shot an open round 80 at the Pure Silk Bahamas LPGA Classic, alarm bells went off. It was three shots worse than her worst round all of last season, and it just wasn't indicative of someone who won 14 tournaments in three seasons. After she withdrew later that night with a lower back injury, all the questions were answered, and Inbee announced she would be taking a month off from golf in order to get healthy.
Inbee may not have that luxury.
For players on the PGA Tour, taking time away from golf tournaments is not uncommon, especially for those at the top. The better you are, the more luxury you have to set your own schedule and take self induced breaks from the game. There are many tournaments that are devoid of big name players for that very reason.
On the LPGA Tour, however, skipping a month's worth of tournaments is an incredibly uncommon occurrence. Part of that is because of finances. The LPGA players are playing for less money and earn less in endorsements, so they need to make as much as they can on the course. Given that there are less tournaments on an LPGA schedule than there is on a PGA schedule, players have to take advantage of their limited opportunities. This has caused the top players on the LPGA Tour to play almost every week, meaning Lydia Ko, the player Inbee is trying to chase down for the Rolex Number One ranking, will be playing while Inbee is on the sidelines. Inbee will be on the sidelines as Lydia and company play in the Coats Golf Championship.
The Player Of The Year race has come down to the final week the past two seasons, with Inbee barely being beaten by Stacy Lewis and Ko, respectively. Given how bunched the players are at the top, giving your main rivals weeks without a challenge may prove critical down the stretch.
It is not just Lewis and Ko, however, that Inbee should be worried about. This past week, Hyo Joo Kim put the final touches on her third LPGA Tour victory. At only 20 years old, she already has major championship experience and has a global resume a mile long. The woman that beat Hyo Joo last season for the Rookie Of The Year trophy, 23 year old Sei Young Kim, has three LPGA victories already and seems poised for a major breakthrough. Another young Korean, 21 year old In Gee Chun, won eight times globally last season, including the US Women's Open, and is the predominant favorite to win this year's Rookie Of The Year race. These young superstars are already battle tested, and are not afraid to chase down Inbee or anyone else at the top of the Rolex Rankings.
Finally, Inbee's issue is in her back, which is a career killer for golfers (see Woods, Tiger). She has admitted to back issues in the past, which is not good for someone with such a unique swing.
“I’ve always had a little lower-back problem and some weeks it just gets a bit worse and today happened to be one of those days,” Park told LPGA media. “Hopefully, in Thailand, I’ll be in really good shape.”
Park admitted entering the season that she didn't have high expectations for her first few tournaments, saying it takes a bit to shake off the rust from the winter. “Fall and winter, I’m horrible," Park said. “Sometimes, in winter time when I play, I’m like, `You’re so bad.’” Park can't shake off the rust if she's sitting at home, and so while she may be pointing to Thailand for her return, it may take a week or two longer before she is actually playing well. That is assuming her back is healthy in Thailand and that she doesn't have any more flare-ups in the early part of the season.
When Inbee is healthy and playing her best, she is the best player in the world, and it may not even be that close. For someone who is only 27 years old, however, to already have back issues is not a great sign. If she plays this season at anything less than her best, she may see her chances at catching Lydia Ko and staying near the top of the rankings slowly slip away.