Inbee Park's big year nearly forgotten

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NAPLES, Fla. (AP) - A winner of three straight majors, Inbee Park returns to the spotlight at the season-ending LPGA Titleholders.

She only hopes she is ready.

The big moment is not on the golf course, but the annual Rolex Awards Celebration, where Park will be honored as the first South Korean to be LPGA player of the year. She has to give a speech, and that's never easy on a big stage when English is the second language.

Worse yet, she didn't have as much time to prepare.

Even though she won six times, and three straight majors, she didn't clinch the points-based award until Sunday in Mexico. Suzann Pettersen came on strong at the end of the year and had a mathematical chance to win the award with two weeks to play. Park tied for fourth to wrap up the title, and with that came a big sigh of relief.

"It would have been great if I had more time to prepare for it," Park said Wednesday. "I thought I would have about a month, actually, but Suzann really pushed hard and she played great in the last few events. She didn't give me much time to prepare for it."

Park not winning the award would have been considered a collapse, and she knew it. She felt it.

She had a chance at St. Andrews to become the first golfer to win four straight majors in one season, but never was a factor. Since then, her game went into a big slide. Park had only one top 10 since the Women's British Open until her tie for fourth _ whew! _ in Mexico last week.

"It felt a little bit weird because I didn't win the tournament, but it felt like it was the seventh win," Park said. "It is very important. My third straight major win at the U.S. Open and last week when I finished off the player of the year award has probably been the two greatest moments that I had this year. So it's a special memory."

Just look at how much the LPGA landscape has changed.

Park has nearly become a forgotten figure over the last three months. Stacy Lewis won the Women's British Open with one of the best shots of the year, that 5-iron into 3 feet for birdie on the 17th at St. Andrews, and now she has chance to win the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.

Pettersen has won three of her last six tournaments and has a reasonable chance to win the LPGA money title. Lexi Thompson has won twice. And all of them might be dwarfed by 16-year-old Lydia Ko, who makes her professional debut Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club.

Six wins. Three majors.

Can anyone top a year like that in golf?

"I think she won player of the year in July ... as soon as she won the U.S. Open," Lewis said. "I think she was player of the year no matter what anybody else did the rest of the year."

Park felt the same way, and it showed. But when her game started to taper off, and Pettersen won the fifth major in France and started closing the gap, Park started to feel the stress. She refers to the end of the season as a time everyone enjoys _ small fields, no cuts _ but it was anything but fun for her.

"It felt like I couldn't really enjoy the time because there's something I really wanted to achieve," she said. "But yeah, this week I can really enjoy myself."

Lewis, who won the LPGA's top award last year, had a reasonable encore. She reached No. 1 in the world with two wins early in the year. And while she never got back the top ranking, she won the Women's British Open at the home of golf.

Even, she used words like "frustrating" in assessing the season. It takes the end of the year for a player to take stock, and Lewis realizes it was a strong year.

"I think you need the time to look back and say, `Look at the good things you did,' because sometimes the frustrating things seem to override all those good things you do," Lewis said.

For Ko, the end of the year is just the beginning.

It's rare for a teenager to join the LPGA Tour and already be No. 5 in the world. The 16-year-old from New Zealand already has two LPGA Tour wins _ back to back in the Canadian Women's Open _ and was runner-up at the Evian Championship, which signaled to her she was ready to turn pro.

LPGA Tour commissioner Mike Whan waived the minimum age requirement of 18 for Ko. The last player given that waiver was Lexi Thompson, who now is 18 and won last week in Mexico for the second time this year.

Ko starts her pro career Thursday at Tiburon Golf Club with Michelle Wie and 19-year-old Jessica Korda.

She also is playing a tournament in Taiwan to close out her year, and then she will play a full schedule mixed in with high school. She has one more year remaining, though her mother has not ruled out going to college while playing the tour, much as Wie did at Stanford.

"My rookie year next year, I think that will be the year where I learn the most," Ko said. "This year I think I played only one or two tournaments back-to-back, so that's a whole different thing where I need to play three or four weeks in a row and only a one-week break. Next year, obviously I need to perform well, but it's more about learning and getting more experience."

(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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