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Annie Park ready for next step at college season’s end

The regular season is nearly over for USC. College golf is nearly over for Annie Park.

After this spring’s national championship, Park will turn professional and play the Symetra Tour on status she earned at LPGA Q-School last fall. It wasn’t an easy decision – in fact, the decision-making traces all the way back to the fall. Park thought long and hard about entering LPGA Q-School and where that left her on the USC squad.

“USC has definitely helped me with golf, but also as a person,” she said, “maturing day-by-day.”

It would be one thing if Park didn’t think her Trojans would be OK without her. Head coach Andrea Gaston has traditionally been a proponent of playing four years. Four years ago, she coached USC’s first four-time All-American Lizette Salas, who went on to the LPGA and made the 2013 U.S. Solheim Cup team.

Park, however, feels it’s time, even if that does mean leaving her beloved teammates.

“They’re still going to win, like, every tournament,” Park said of a squad that, including her, has five players inside the top 80 in Golfweek’s ranking (Park is ranked No. 22). The Trojans start the ASU/Ping Invitational on Thursday, the last event before the Pac-12 Championship and postseason.

Park graduated high school early two years ago and crossed the country from her home on Long Island, N.Y., to play golf in Los Angeles, and she was an immediate sensation. She’s a 5-foot-9-inch player you can hardly miss. No other player in recent years (not to mention a first-semester freshman) has “Annie Parked” a national-championship field quite like she did at the University of Georgia Golf Course at the end of her first semester. Her team won that year, too – by 21 shots.

Of course, such a convincing performance brings a pressure all its own. Park has dealt with it admirably.

“I guess my sophomore year, I had a higher expectation for me to play better because I knew that I could play better,” she said. “It could be frustrating when I wasn’t playing my best.”

In fact, Park was back at the University of Georgia course two weeks ago, playing the Liz Murphey Collegiate Classic with her team. The memories of 2013, she said, were blurry that week. With the weather and course conditions considerably different, Park’s conversation with a teammate went something like this: “I don’t know how we played so well (in 2013).” Park got a crucial halve in the championship match to help USC repeat in the event.

Park imagines that even after this semester, she’ll still stay in Los Angeles for the weather benefits, and to try to finish her communication degree at USC. The details aren’t official yet, and much of that decision depends on what she can handle with school.

Don’t ask Park what year, exactly, she is, because she’s not sure how to self-identify on that subject. After starting USC a semester early, she says proudly that she’s still on time to graduate.

“For me, starting in January is so weird,” she said.

In making the decision to move on, Park also looked to swing coach Sean Foley for advice. Park said he wasn’t against it, but when she began discussing the idea with Foley, Park was very discouraged with her game.

“I wasn’t confident that I would make it out there,” Park said of professional golf. “I was having all these doubts. I was discussing that with him, and that’s when he was like, ‘You’ll definitely make it out there, you have the game for that.’ ”

That conversation took place in the fall, when Park decided to enter Q-School. She went to the PGA Tour’s Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in February to tell Foley, there working with Hunter Mahan, her final decision.

Park went home after the final stage of Q-School, where she failed to make the cut, and took a break because of the cold New York weather. She underwent thyroid surgery at the beginning of the new year and had to take a few weeks off. The surgery affected her energy level and hormones, and Park feels like she’s just getting back to normal. She jokes that in the weeks after surgery, she can remember crying because she was so stressed out by school and simultaneously laughing at the thought of crying over a paper.

It’s an odd image of Park, because you won’t meet a calmer player in college golf.

Park views her upcoming transition this way: “I’m not going to be 19 years old forever. I’m just making a move. I’m playing golf at a different level. I think it’s just time.”

In fact, she celebrated her 20th birthday April 9. So far in life, she’s been good at transitions.

“We’ll see what happens,” Park said “… You’ve always imagined becoming a professional golfer ever since you were 8, but now it’s so weird.”

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