PITTSFORD, N.Y. – The goodbye tears started to fall when Grace Park walked off her last hole at Locust Hill Country Club Friday.
Two weeks ago she decided to walk away from the LPGA in the midst of her 13th season. Park, 33, is set to marry Skye Kim in November, and said she’s ready to try new things.
“After getting my health back and playing every event last year I wanted to give it one last chance of becoming one of the best golfers,” Park said. “But the reality was my game wasn’t there.”
Park carded back to back 75s at the Wegmans LPGA Championship and is currently two shots outside the cutline. She hopes the wind blows hard this afternoon.
Park moved to the U.S. from Korea at age 12 for one reason: the LPGA. She blazed a trail for young Koreans, earning AJGA Player of the Year honors in 1994 and 1996. She enrolled at Arizona State in 1997 and was named college player of the year the next spring, leading the Sun Devils to the NCAA Championship.
In the summer, she swept the Trans-Amateur, Western Amateur and U.S. Women’s Amateur titles, becoming the first player since Patty Berg in 1938 to accomplish the feat. She won 55 junior, college and amateur titles before turning professional in 1999.
Park looked poised to become an Americanized version of Se Ri Pak, who won two major titles in her first year on the LPGA.
She was one of the first players to earn her LPGA card through what’s now known as the Symetra Tour. Park won five of the 10 events in which she played on the developmental tour in 1999 and was named Futures Tour Player of the Year.
In her first five years on the LPGA, Park won six titles, including the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship. She seemed on track for a Hall-of-Fame-like career. Injuries and strained relationships with her family, however, ultimately held her back.
When she reached No. 2 on the money list in ’04, Park said she felt an intense pressure to become No. 1.
“I practiced; I spent just as much time,” Park said in an interview two years ago. “But I had no goal.”
Park retreated to Korea to relax, limiting her LPGA schedule. In many ways, she felt empty.
It’s not unusual for prodigies in any field to wrestle with who’s in control. Park came of age in America, but was bound by a Korean culture that left her parents very much in charge, even in adulthood. Park once said that she felt like an American golfer who hangs out with Koreans. She was torn between two worlds.
It’s rare for players to open up about these inner-family struggles. I.K. Kim is one of the few Korean players on the LPGA who established independence early in her career.
Even though Park traveled alone on the LPGA and had her own place in Scottsdale, Ariz., she felt stifled. Several years ago she sat down with her parents in Seoul and had a difficult conversation.
“ ‘I love you, I know you love me, but let me take control,’ ” Park told them. “We had a big blowup in the household, but eventually they accepted it.”
Park expected this new freedom to lead to better golf. An injured hip, however, left her on crutches. She went back to her old instructor, Mike LaBauve, in January 2010 once her hip had healed.
She tied for 10th that year at the Kraft Nabisco, but played only six more times, twice making a paycheck. Last season Park finished 81st on the money list, playing in 16 events.
This year she MC’d her first five events. She tied for 71st last week in Atlantic City.
Park never did like the spotlight. Her parents own a famous restaurant in Seoul so she has never had a financial worry. After she won the Kraft, it became rare for Park to go anywhere in Korea without someone recognizing her. The Korean media didn’t like that she’d go home and shut the curtains.
Park admits she has no idea what she’ll do in the coming the years.
“I don’t even know what I like doing because I pretty much devoted my whole life to being the greatest golfer I can be,” Park said. “I want to take some time off to find out what I like doing.”