The end of February saw the second LPGA event of the season played in Thailand. The Honda LPGA Thailand is an annual event which used to be contested towards the end of the season. It took a year off in 2008, and now finds itself near the start of the tour schedule. The Korean contingent did not have a particularly good week, with only one of them managing to achieve a top ten finish. But oh, what a wild finish that was! Hee Young Park finished second behind world number one Lorena Ochoa, but considering all that she went through, it’s a wonder she even finished the event at all.
Hee Young has always been a bit of an underrated player. She turned pro back in 2005 and joined the KLPGA tour. But the clear favorite for Rookie of the Year that season was another player, Na Yeon Choi, who had won a KLPGA event already as a high school student. Park surprised everyone, however, by besting Choi to take that coveted title. Her future looked bright. In fact, that year, the members of the KLPGA were asked to name the Korean golfer (or golfer of Korean heritage) with the best swing. They chose Hee Young as having the very best swing, ahead of even Michelle Wie and Se Ri Pak.
In 2006, however, Park ran into the buzzsaw that was Ji Yai Shin. Shin won three times on tour, collecting the Rookie and Player of the Year awards. Park had a great season herself, finishing second on the money list, but still found herself in the shadows of Shin. In 2007, Shin began her epic domination of the KLPGA, and Park was one of the promising young golfers left in the dust.
In 2008, Hee Young opened a new chapter in her career when she qualified for the LPGA tour by finishing third at Q-School. By contrast, her longtime rival Choi was not able to claim an exempt card at that event. Park was in fact the only exempt Korean rookie on tour that year, and looked poised to perhaps establish herself as a big gun. And in fact, she had a great year, earning nearly a half a million dollars (35th on the money list), and easily maintaining status on tour. But Choi had a phenomenal year, making over a million bucks, and once again Park found herself the forgotten star.
Which takes us to 2009 and her week in Thailand. Things could not have gotten out to a worse start. She got very sick on Thursday and struggled to even stay upright, let alone play the event. Somehow she managed to finish her round, shotting a miserable 79 that left her virtually in last place. After the round, she went to the hospital, where she stayed for several hours while the doctors pumped an IV into her body.
No one would have blamed Hee Young if she had decided to scrap the rest of the week, but she came back the next day rested and wanting to try again. And boy, was it worth it! In round two, she shot an 8 birdie, no bogey masterpiece, the course record, to zoom up the leaderboard. She had improved 15 shots in just one day. Interestingly, even when Hee Young is not sick, she has a tendency to be wildly variable in her results. Some weeks, she will shoot a brilliant round, then follow it the next day with a horrible one. So perhaps she knew in her heart she was capable of a great round, because she had so often followed poor rounds with great ones in the past. Still, it was one of the most remarkable turnarounds in recent years.
And she wasn’t done yet. She shot a 69 in round three to put herself into the hunt for the title, then produced a scintillating 65, almost as good as her Friday score, on Sunday. Only Ochoa, shooting her own great round of 66, was able to prevent Park from winning. Amazingly, Park had gone from second to last to second to best in just three rounds. In those final three days, she had only one bogey, while producing an eagle on Sunday after driving the 287 yard par 4 fifth hole and sinking a long, improbable eagle putt.
How much will her unlikely rally at this event affect Hee Young’s career, both in the short term and looking farther into the future? She has the length (as demonstrated by that eagle) and the all around game to be great. But has she found a way to overcome the demons that have sunk her efforts in the past? The next time she is in contention to win, will she be able to draw on her memories of the tenacity she showed in Thailand? Will she be able to dig down when things are going badly, and prevent that terrible round that has sunk her in the past? Will she finally emerge from the shadows of Shin and Choi (both of whom finished just outside the top ten in Thailand) and become the star she seems capable of being? Time will tell, but the signs are certainly good!