2004: This time, Park aces her final exam

Erie, Pa.

Jane Park oozes SoCal cool.

Nothing rattles this laid-back teen – not a testy 3-footer, not a pop quiz in algebra and not a championship match.

Playing in her third U.S. Golf Association finale, Park cracked the winning code Aug. 15 when she edged Amanda McCurdy on the 36th hole to win the 104th U.S. Women’s Amateur, 2 up.

It had been 360 days since Park, 17, finished runner-up to Virada Nirapathpongporn at the 2003 Women’s Amateur, and 22 days since Julieta Granada bested her for the U.S. Girls’ Junior title.

“Yeah, I’m like Phil Mickelson,” said a relieved Park. “I got the monkey off my back, the major monkey or whatever.”

Park, who owns a 25-6 record in seven USGA match-play events, seemed the clear-cut favorite on paper. Perhaps that’s what motivated thousands of Erie patrons to adopt McCurdy as their own.

The little-known spitfire, who stands a hair over 5 feet tall, fist-pumped her way around The Kahkwa Club. A junior at the University of Arkansas, McCurdy, 20, won over volunteers and spectators with her Southern charm and gritty game.

“It made it even harder to not win today,” McCurdy said. “Because I wanted to win for myself, but I felt like I was playing for them as well.”

McCurdy, a native of El Dorado, Ark., wasn’t always the center of attention. From billboards to bar signs, Michelle Wie’s celebrity status gave stroke-play qualifying a Sunday feel as 2,000 pairing sheets were snatched up before noon on Day 1.

With junior players such as Morgan Pressel, Brittany Lincicome, Granada and medalist Amie Cochran making their first Women’s Am appearances, simply securing a spot on the match-play bracket was a tall order. Annie Thurman and Brittany Lang, members of the victorious U.S. Curtis Cup team, were among the big-name casualties to miss the cut.

After cruising through her first two matches, Park’s first real test came from the “other 14-year-old” in the field, Mina Harigae. The pint-sized Californian lasted one round longer than Wie and took the eventual champion to the 18th hole.

After disposing of recent California State-Northridge grad Beth Allen in the quarterfinal round, Park met Sarah Huarte in the semis. The reigning NCAA champion and Curtis Cup teammate appeared to have the upper hand on Park with a 2-up lead through 13 holes. But a sputtering putter down the stretch caused Huarte to finish her last five holes in 6 over.

Meanwhile, a Cinderella story was unfolding in the upper bracket as a player nicknamed “Lil’ Bit” took her laid-off swing to new heights. McCurdy, a Women’s Amateur novice, pounced on a struggling Paula Creamer in the semifinals. Creamer, Golfweek’s top-ranked junior, hit only five greens en route to a 6-and-4 loss. Creamer has collected four consecutive third-place match-play medals.

In preparation for the final, McCurdy did what she always does between rounds, pounding down a burger from McDonald’s with her father and caddie, David McCurdy. Arkansas head coach Kelley Hester flew in late Friday evening after making reservations while driving to the airport.

“She’s just a little girl from south Arkansas,” Hester said. “In her mind, she doesn’t see that she’s behind or at any disadvantage. She’s just as good, and this is what she was made to do.”

After her own routine carbohydrate charge, Park and her father, Byung, made a stop at the mall to buy some new outfits for Sunday. It’s no surprise that Park focuses on fashion. Her family has owned Fashion Dove, a wholesale clothing store in downtown Los Angeles, for 18 years. Byung, who wears the same white bucket hat his daughter routinely dons, became a scratch golfer by teaching himself the game through books and television.

He passed his knowledge on to Jane and remains her primary instructor.

While David McCurdy opted to skip breakfast for the second consecutive morning, Amanda appeared comfortable in the spotlight Sunday as she took the early lead on a picture-perfect day. Park gained control on the inward nine but lost a 2-up advantage on the last three holes, leaving them knotted at all square after 18 holes.

A pep talk from dad at lunch and a minor swing adjustment put Park back on track. She calmly birdied three of the first five holes in the afternoon to take a 3-up advantage.

“I was pulling my shots this whole week,” Park said. “And it’s the championship match and I’ve

got to get it going. So I took (the club) outside. I just took it a little more upright, and my shots were going much straighter.”

McCurdy appeared to be mounting a charge after cutting the deficit to two holes with a birdie on No. 11, but Park chipped in from 25 feet on the following hole to zap McCurdy’s momentum. Still, McCurdy wouldn’t go down without a fight. She cut the deficit to one hole on 17 after Park’s approach flew the green. But she couldn’t continue the comeback on the 18th green, as her 40-foot birdie attempt sailed past the hole.

“It did get very frustrating,” said McCurdy of her cold putter. “But to not putt anywhere near my potential and still push it to the last hole. . . . I’ll carry that away.”

For Park, the win seemed a long time coming. And the Californian handled victory in the same manner as defeat – calm, cool and collected.

“I can’t even put into words how happy I am,” said Park. “I’m just not an emotional girl; it’s all inside of me.”

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