SEOUL, March 19 (Yonhap) — Hobbled by back pains, South Korean LPGA star Park In-bee was forced to end her 2017 season prematurely in September.

In hindsight, the extended late-season break might have been just what she needed at that point in her career.

Park has returned to action with a bang, winning the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix, Arizona, on Sunday (local time), in just her second start of 2018. This was her 19th career LPGA win, and her first since March last year.

In this Getty Images photo, Park In-bee of South Korea poses with the champion's trophy after winning the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on the LPGA Tour at Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 18, 2018. (Yonhap) In this Getty Images photo, Park In-bee of South Korea poses with the champion’s trophy after winning the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on the LPGA Tour at Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

Park wielded a hot putter en route to a bogey-free final round of five-under 67, and at 19-under for the tournament, the next-closest finishers all trailed Park by five shots.

Park said she couldn’t quite explain how she was able to come back and win almost right away, but added that she felt her break came just at the right moment.

“I think it really worked well timing-wise, how the injuries happened and how I took some time off from golf,” Park said at the post-tournament press conference. “Even if I didn’t have an injury, I think I was just really getting tired mentally and physically. I just think I hit the point where I needed a break.”

   Now 29, Park has accomplished more in her 20s than most golfers do in their entire careers. Her 19 victories include seven major titles, and she is already in the LPGA Hall of Fame. She has at least one LPGA win in six of the past seven seasons. And the one year in which she didn’t win on the tour, 2016, Park won the Olympic gold medal in Rio de Janeiro.

And these accomplishments came at a physical and mental cost for Park, who used her forced break to relax and recharge.

“When you just keep playing golf for 10 years nonstop, you kind of want to take some time off and just think about something else and do something else,” Park said. “Injury actually made me do that. I might have won more tournaments if I didn’t take the break, but I don’t think I would have been happier as a person than I am now. After the break, I just feel like I am refreshed and I feel like I want to play again.”

   Park even admitted that during the offseason, she was “just trying to figure out whether I am good enough to win again or not.”

  

In this Associated Press photo, Park In-bee of South Korea hits a shot out of a bunker by the 15th green during the final round of the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on the LPGA Tour at Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 18, 2018. (Yonhap) In this Associated Press photo, Park In-bee of South Korea hits a shot out of a bunker by the 15th green during the final round of the Bank of Hope Founders Cup on the LPGA Tour at Wildfire Golf Club at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Arizona, on March 18, 2018. (Yonhap)

“The reason that I am competing and playing is because I want to win,” she said. “This week definitely proved that I can win and contend and play some pain-free golf. All those three worked this week, so that gave me so much confidence.”

   And being back in the winner’s circle feels as great as ever, said Park, who added she expected it to take longer to shake off the rust caused by her hiatus.

“This one feels as good as the other 18 (wins),” she said. “Having a win this early in the season is always very helpful. That just takes so much pressure off me.”

   Park was the undisputed No. 1 in the world during most of 2013 and 2014 seasons, but has since dropped to No. 19. The recent win should push her closer to the top 10 again. Park said she hasn’t been paying attention to her ranking position.

“To be honest, with the world rankings, I don’t think I have even looked at them since the Olympics,” she said. “I know I’m somewhere in the top 20, but I didn’t really think about making up or going to No. 1 again. My main focus was just playing some good golf, and that just brings rankings up anyway.”

   Now that she has bagged a win already this year, Park has set her sights on winning another major.

“One of the important goals for this season was to win a major championship,” said Park, whose last major victory came at the 2015 Ricoh Women’s British Open. “Hopefully, I can play some good golf in the major championships. We haven’t started with even one yet, so I’m really looking forward to playing in the first major of the year.”

   The first of five LPGA majors this year will be ANA Inspiration starting on March 29 in Rancho Mirage, California.

jeeho@yna.co.kr

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