The situation could not have been tenser. Grace Park had been establishing herself, slowly but surely, as one of the top golfers on the LPGA tour. In her first four seasons on tour, she had won four times and finished as high as third on the money list. But she had yet to win a Major, and those four special events are the most important signifier of a player’s status. Now, at the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship, Park held on to a two shot lead as her group reached the final hole. Not only was her Major title at stake, but also the possibility of becoming the first from her country to win this prestigious event.
Playing with her, and in second place, was the teenager Aree Song. Song had been achieving miraculous results since she had notched a top ten at this very event as a thirteen year old. Now 17 and a tour rookie, Song knew she had to go for the green on this par five, to see if she could make eagle and steal the trophy right out of Park’s hands.
Song hit the green with her second shot, leaving her ball about twenty five feet from the pin. Grace decided to play it safe, and laid up to about 100 yards. She hit her third shot within a few feet of the flag and shivered in relief. But after the twosome had crossed the bridge, Song lined up her lengthy putt and, improbably, incredibly, drained it. Eagle! And just like that, Song was tied with Park.
Suddenly, the six foot birdie putt seemed like a hundred miles. Grace had come close to winning a big one before, including losing in a playoff the previous year to Annika Sorenstam at the LPGA Championship. She did not want to get into another playoff if she could help it. She later revealed that her hands were shaking so hard she could barely pull the club back, but nonetheless she fired a perfect putt and dropped the birdie to take the one shot victory.
Ecstatic, Grace Park took the traditional plunge into Poppy’s Pond. With all she had accomplished in her young career and all the promise she still had, it seemed as though this would be but the first of many such moments for her in years to come.
Grace would go on to have her best season in 2004, winning a second tournament later in the year in front of Korean crowds at the CJ 9 bridges. She finished second on the money list, behind only the unstoppable Sorenstam, and won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. At last, Grace Park had arrived as a superstar.
But as it turned out, that Kraft Nabisco was the only Major Grace would ever win, and after 2004, she would never even come close to winning another tournament. Injuries got the best of her, completely destroying one of the most promising careers in Korean golf history. After a top ten in Korea during her title defense in 2005, she would not even make another top ten on tour until nearly five years later. Whole seasons were lost as she struggled through operations, rehab, injuries and more injuries.
Last week at the Wegman’s LPGA Championship, Grace Park had finally had enough. Healthy for the first time in years, she had made a solid attempt over the past year to return to her former level, but found success elusive. She announced on Friday, after finishing with a 6 over par total and seemingly missing the cut, that this would be her last LPGA event. But amazingly, the cut line slipped, and Grace got to play two more rounds after all. She would finish last in the field among those who made the cut. Repeatedly distracted by tears, particularly on the final nine of her career, she still hung in there. Korean superstar Se Ri Pak paid her visit on her final tee, wishing her well. Grace striped her final drive perfectly down the fairway and made a fine par save, receiving a standing ovation from the crowd around the 18th green. Grace Park’s LPGA career was over at the age of 33.
If Se Ri Pak was the big name of the original three Korean golf superstars, and Mi Hyun Kim was the player who got the most out of her diminutive size, Grace Park had, at least during her professional years, sometimes seemed like the underachiever. Certainly none of the Koreans came into the league with a gaudier amateur resume. Park had moved to the United States as a 12 year old to hone her golf game. Almost immediately, she became one of the best junior golfers in the States, winning the AJGA Player of the Year award and the NCAA Player of the Year. She won the US Women’s Amateur in 1998, the same year as Pak turned Korea on its ear when she won two Majors as a 20 year old rookie. Interestingly, Park defeated the same player in the final, Duke player Jenny Chuasiriporn, as Pak had beaten in the Open playoff. In fact, in 1998 Grace Park won the ‘Women’s amateur Grand Slam’ in one season, a feat no woman had been able to accomplish for nearly 60 years.
Park brought a formidable set of skills to the table. Insanely long off the tee (at her best, she might well have been the longest of all the Korean golfers thus far), she could hit the ball high and soft like few women could. Because she had grown up in Arizona, she could speak English fluently, making her accessible to both Korean and American fans. She was also glamorous and beautiful like almost no other golfer of the time. In short, she was the complete package, and women’s golf eagerly awaited her arrival as a professional. She had the potential to become a superstar in every way.
After turning pro, Park wasted little time showing what she could do. She played ten events on the Futures Tour in 1999, winning five of them to easily capture an LPGA tour card. At the 1999 US Women’s Open, before she turned pro, she destroyed Jenny’s Chuasiriporn’s record for lowest score achieved by an amateur, finishing 8th in the process. She also had the longest driving average for the week, eight yards ahead of the next longest competitor. At the 1999 Safeway Classic, she played on a sponsor’s invite and finished second (Pak finished 4th). Her imminent arrival on the LPGA was like a freight train coming.
Grace joined the LPGA in 2000, but in her first couple of years, she was dissatisfied with her performance. She started her rookie year weakly, missing a bunch of cuts and not finishing that well in most other events. But after a few months, she started scoring top tens, culminating with her winning her first LPGA event in April. At that point, it looked like she was on her way to the Rookie of the Year award, which would have made her the third straight Korean to win it, after Se Ri and Mi Hyun Kim. But ominously, at about that point she was sidelined for a while with a rib injury. It was a sign of things to come. Meanwhile, American Dorothy Delasin won an event, and would go on to edge Park in the Rookie standings by the end of the season.
2001 was another up and down year for her. She managed a second victory, but only six total top tens. And she had more injuries, with her driving distance suffering as a result. She still was unable to finish in the top ten on the money list.
Grace finally had her first great season in 2002. She started the year in fine form with a tie for 6th in the year’s first event, and notched top tens in 6 of the next 8 events. She was not getting wins, but the consistency she had lacked for so long had at last arrived. Her third win came in October at the Cisco World Match Play, and Grace finished the year 6th on the money list, her first ever appearance in the top ten.
The next two years, Grace relentlessly rose up the league rankings. In 2003, she finished third on the money list, earning over 1 million dollars for the first time in a single season. She finished third in scoring with an average of 70.11. In just 26 events played, she finished in the top ten an incredible 19 times, still the second highest number of top tens ever achieved by a Korean golfer (Se Ri managed 20 top tens in the same season). She had 10 straight top tens to finish the year. But even with all those accomplishments, she still only managed a single win, at the event at Kingsmill. She had four second place finishes (including a second at the LPGA Championship, her best Major finish to date) and four thirds. She was undeniably a superstar, but still was not able to get multiple wins in a season on a tour that featured Se Ri Pak and Annika Sorenstam at the height of their powers. But she was younger than either of them, and it seemed just a matter of time before she got to their level.
2004 was even better for Grace than 2003. She started the year with three straight top threes, including her first Major win at the Nabisco. The season might have been truly transcendent, but her back acted up again in the summer, affecting her results at the big money events and Majors that happened at that time. But in the Fall she had arguably her best ever stretch of golf, notching second place finish after second place finish before finally getting her second win of the year at the event in Korea. She wound up with a scoring average under 70, giving her the Vare Trophy for lowest average of the season. She finished second on the money list behind only Sorenstam. For the first time, Grace was the top Korean on the LPGA tour.
Grace Park was at the pinnacle, and looked poised to get better and better. She was only 25 years old. But 2004 would prove to be her last great, or even good, season in professional golf. For the next eight years, she would suffer from all sorts of injury problems, and never again played top level golf. After a top ten in defense of her Korean title in 2005, she would not have another top ten until 2010. She missed more tournaments than she played, and when she did play, she was either struggling with pain, or was so rusty that her results rarely soared.
Finally, in 2011, Grace announced that she was over her injuries and ready to make another push to return to top form. She worked as hard as she had in years, but the results just never came. Her best finish was a tie for 13th at the Safeway Classic. In 2012, it was more of the same.
Grace had decided at the beginning of the 2012 season that this would be her last year on tour. Her initial plan was to play on the LPGA through the summer, then return to Korea to play there the rest of 2012. She has been engaged to her fiancé for some time, and was planning on finally tying the knot in the Fall. But her struggles were such that she decided just two weeks before the LPGA Championship that she would make that event her final LPGA tournament.
Is this the last we will hear from Grace Park? Even she isn’t sure, but I suspect she’ll be back sooner or later. She may no longer have it in her to play golf at the highest level, but she will almost certainly find some way to stay involved in the sport. She even left the door open for her to play later in the year on the KLPGA tour, like she had originally planned. Stay tuned for that!
Even if she never strikes another golf ball, however, she has without question been one of the most significant golfers of the past decade and a half. Yes, her promise was so much greater than her actual results, especially once she got to the big leagues. But she helped usher in not just one but several revolutions in her sport. Women’s golf was much less diverse when Grace entered the league, and she, along with the other pioneering Seoul Sisters, helped make it into a huge sport in Asia. She also injected a much needed jolt of style into a sport that had once been fairly frumpy and colorless. As well, she helped usher in the youth revolution in her sport. In just the last decade, the average age of players on that tour has consistently dropped as younger and younger players qualify for the big leagues. Park, who joined the tour as a 20 year old, was a big part of that change.
Most significantly, Park was a figure that showed that the Korean “invasion” was not a force to be feared; it could be embraced by non-Asian fans as well. With her perfect English, relatable style, and fiery personality, she had something that appealed to everyone, Asian or American. Even Cheyenne Woods, Tiger’s niece, who made her pro debut at the same event where Grace finished, tweeted that she would miss Park immensely, as she had been her favorite golfer growing up.
Congratulations once again to Grace Park, and good luck to her as she starts the next part of her life!