Annie Park sure seems a lot taller than 5 feet, 9 inches. Maybe it’s because the USC sophomore’s game is larger than college golf. Such a state is status quo for the 18-year-old Park, who since the beginning of her junior golf career has appeared to be the oldest in the field despite usually being the youngest.
Park’s meteoric rise began in Levittown, N.Y., on Long Island, where her parents, natives of South Korea, own a chain of nail salons called Angel Tips.
Young Hee Park took Annie – then a competitive dancer – to the range at a young age and heard a chorus of impressed onlookers say, “Make her a golfer.”
By age 8, Annie was hitting 200 balls per day. Then it grew to 500. But it wasn’t until Park won her first tournament that she started to actually like the game. She saw another young girl win five or six trophies at a year-end awards ceremony and thought that might be fun.
“That’s what inspired me to practice,” Park said, as if she hadn’t hit all those balls before. “The next year, I won 10 trophies.”
She ate in the car after school on her way to the range, and again on the way to the gym. She was just starting her homework about the time most kids were winding down for bed.
The results were staggering: “Out of 100 tournaments, I probably won 90 percent,” she said. “One year I won 14 out of 14.”
Plenty of kids collect trophies as if they are Barbie dolls in their small corners of the world, only to grow up and realize the depth of golf’s ocean, never to be heard from again. Don’t count Park among them.
Last January, Park left her island enclave for the USC campus in urban Los Angeles. In five months, Park won every major title and award in college golf. Not since Lorena Ochoa had a player come along and dominated as Park has. She swept the postseason, winning conference, regional and national titles as well as leading the Trojans to the team crowns. Park made a big-enough splash in one semester to take Player of the Year from those who had toiled two seasons.
Why come back this fall?
Because years ago, instructor Sean Foley – in his pre-Tiger Woods days – told Young Hee Park that Annie could be a star. And he continues to preach patience.
“Sean wants her to go slow,” mom said.
So it’s back to L.A.
• • •
Park arrived at the Canal Cafe in Hampton Bays, N.Y., looking as if she’d just woken from a nap, probably because she had. Sebonack Golf Club’s severe greens can wipe out even the brightest young stars. Hours removed from missing the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open in late June, Park looked as though she might sleep away the weekend.
“Mostly I like to stay in my bed and do absolutely nothing,” Park said of her spare time. With all the focus that golf requires, she considers naps essential.
“I like to have a mental breakdown once a week,” Park said, laughing.
At age 10, Park moved to Florida with her mother to attend the Mike Bender Golf Academy in Lake Mary. At 13, she began working with Foley, whom she met at a tournament, practicing with him at least once a week for a year until moving back to New York before her freshman year of high school.
“(Annie) was so talented and so skilled at that age,” Foley said. “I mean when she was 12, she was almost the same size she is now.
“She just didn’t understand anything. . . . She understood how to play the game, but she didn’t really know why it worked or why it didn’t work.”
In New York – overwhelmed with family issues, including her parents’ divorce, and emotionally and physically exhausted from a packed junior schedule – Park gave up golf for six months, not touching a club.
Mama Park, a woman with a strong personality who was a runner in her youth, supported her daughter’s decision. Foley told the mother not to worry.
When she returned, vowing to play a lighter schedule, Park was refreshed, but her short game was rusty from the break and she entered a bona fide slump.
“I just lost it,” Park said.
Foley praised Park’s ability to press on and see the big picture during her struggles.
“Who cares how good you are when you’re 14?” Foley said. “I think it’s more imperative to show how good you are when you’re 21 and you’re about to do something for a living.”
Park’s rebound began with a semifinal appearance at the 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links at Bandon Dunes. Then, in her junior year, she made headlines at MacArthur High School, becoming the first girl to win the Nassau Boys High School Championship, at Bethpage. What’s more, she obliterated the boys’ scoring record by six strokes. Sophomore Matt Lowe, who finished second, told the local media that it felt like being hit by a freight train.
Annie was back.
Foley said Park’s graduating from high school a semester early, leaving her family and moving across the country was a big step in her development.
Said Foley: “(Annie said), ‘I’m going to be really uncomfortable, and that’s so good because when I feel like that and I get over it, I’m so much stronger and I’m so much wiser and I’m so much better as a person.’
“It’s kind of a cool way to look at it. She’s not afraid to grow.”
Still, Park didn’t know what to expect when she arrived in Los Angeles, far from the safety net provided by mom and older sister, Bo.
“I was worried I wouldn’t be able to adapt to California,” Park said.
She wanted to take fashion classes at USC but, after discovering that the school offers none, plans to major in marketing or business.
“I have goals in life,” Park said. “After I retire from golf, I’d like to have my own business.”
Park even took a calculus class over the summer at Nassau Community College. The class wrapped up the week before the U.S. Women’s Amateur, from which she was eliminated in the quarterfinals.
“She had her ‘C’ stuff this week,” said USC assistant coach Justin Silverstein, who caddied for Park at the Country Club
of Charleston (S.C.).
After Park’s loss, Silverstein opened up a yardage book and revealed column after column of neatly written numbers. He’d taken notes on every solid shot that she hit, noting the distance and conditions. Precise distance control equals success at the next level. Along with putting, of course. Park frequently talks about her demons with the flatstick.
“She always goes to the putter,” Silverstein said. “It’s a story she loves to tell.”
USC head coach Andrea Gaston said Park simply needs to find the right putter to match her stroke. This summer, she switched her wedges to Ping and is tinkering with Ping putters.
Park said she plays her best when she has no idea where she stands on the leaderboard. That evidently was the case a lot last year, because her four victories tied a USC single-season record. In nine starts she finished
in the top 3 six times, and her 71.36 scoring average set a school mark.
Where does Park, No. 1 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, go from here?
“Like all great tour players, you’re only as good as your last event,” Gaston said. “The most important thing is to keep her in the present.”
Park said her main goal this year is to keep her rounds steady, then added that it would be nice to win every tournament.
“But that’s putting too much pressure on myself,” Park said.
She’d probably settle for another spring sweep.