SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Grace Park sat in a cushy chair in the lobby of Grayhawk Golf Club and told her life story in a shockingly straightforward manner. Athletes rarely reveal hidden wounds. The hip pain that led to surgery last April was obvious, but only she could reveal the extent of her personal pain.
“I was a golf machine, and I didn’t want to be that,” said Park, who returns to the competitive stage for the first time in nearly a year March 25 at the Kia Classic presented by J Golf.
Park, 31, often has talked about the pressures many Korean players face. She mistakenly thought playing well would equal freedom. The better she performed, however, the more people expected. When she reached No. 2 on the money list in ’04, plans were hatched on how to get to No. 1. Sacrifice this. Change that.
Eventually, she just let go.
“I practiced; I spent just as much time,” she said. “But I had no goal.”
Park played through chronic back pain for several seasons, but her limited schedule wasn’t always because of injury. From 2006 to ’08, Park played in only 15 events each year before heading home to South Korea to relax. This wasn’t at all how she pictured her pro career when she moved to the U.S. at age 12.
At Arizona State, Park pushed herself at tournaments so that she could skip qualifiers and study halls.
“Winning golf tournaments was a way for me to get other things that I wanted,” she said.
After two years in college, Park felt pressure to turn pro. Because she still wanted to be a 21-year-old college student like the rest of her friends, she underachieved. Physically her game was ready, but mentally it wasn’t. She won six times on the LPGA, including a major, but in many ways felt empty.
If she shot 68, her parents wanted to know why it wasn’t 67 or 66. What did you do wrong? Park knows they didn’t always mean to be harsh. Nevertheless, that’s how she perceived it.
Park was taught early that boys are a distraction. She has dated the same man on and off since her rookie season. Obviously, it’s complicated.
Two years ago, Park sat down with her parents in Seoul and shared her heart.
“ ‘I love you, I know you love me, but let me take control,’ ” she told them. “We had a big blowup in the household, but eventually they accepted it.”
In Korean culture, especially, that was huge. Daughters are expected to live with their parents until marriage (as Park does in Korea) and follow their rule book.
It took several months for the dust to settle, but Park finally felt she had permission to live life as she saw fit. She expected 2009 to be a watershed year. Doctors, however, said otherwise. The torn labrum in her right hip needed immediate surgery. She spent six weeks on crutches and six months in rehab. Park worked toward getting her master’s in sports education at Korea University in Seoul (she had received her bachelor’s in 2003 in Korea)
and went on a family vacation.
“I could do, for the first time in my life, whatever I wanted to,” she said.
When asked if there are other Korean players facing similar situations with their parents, Park said: “I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but yes.”
In January, Park returned to golf. She went back to the instructor of her youth, Mike LaBauve, and tried to find her natural swing. It has been years since she stood on the tee and thought, “I’ve got it.” The “it” days were over.
“I don’t know when she’s going to play great again,” said LaBauve, who sees signs of improvement but doesn’t want to put any expectations on his student. He’s trying to be quietly excited.
“It sounds weird. I’ve been competitive for over 20 years, but I’m finally ready to play golf,” Park said. “It’s because I want to play, not to earn other things, not to get a pass from study hall.”
Naturally, Park worried that her parents would come across poorly in print after such a frank interview.
“Put it in a nice way,” she said, “because they’re nice people.” No doubt. Soo Nam and Jin Ae Park poured their lives into Grace’s golf career. Their intentions were sincere. Still, it’s difficult for a woman living in America to embrace the strict nature of Korean culture.
The struggle contributed heavily to Park’s career skid. Now, finally healthy in body and spirit, Park is ready to restart her playing career.