PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- The buzz going into the 1999 U.S. Women's Open at Old Waverly in steamy Mississippi was about Beth Bauer, the Duke star who was expected to take the LPGA by storm. But early in the week, anyone hanging out on the practice ranged noticed the ball was jumping off the club of Grace Park with a very special sound.When the tournament started, the stark contrast between the talent levels of the two became even more apparent. Both still amateurs, Park finished T-8 while Bauer missed the cut. By 2007, Bauer had retired without ever winning. On Friday, Park joined her, announcing she was walking away from the game while waiting to see if she would make the cut at the Wegmans LPGA Championship.
Grace was supposed to be the next big star from Korea, turning pro in 1999, a year after Se Ri Park burst onto the scene by winning the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open. She wound up sticking around for this weekend, but after years of injury and disappointment, the 33-year-old talent with movie star looks will take a step into the next phase of her life come Sunday evening.
"You are going to make me cry again," Park said as she hugged a reporter she has know for 13 years. "I stopped crying a half hour again." Then she climbed into a chair, took a microphone and explained her decision.
"I have been thinking about it for awhile," Park said, fighting her emotions. "But after getting my health back and playing every event last year, I wanted to give it one last chance at becoming one of the top golfers again. I worked really hard, especially this last winter. But the truth was that my game just wasn't there. To be honest, it just wasn't fun. It was really painful and hard to deal with."
Park, who was born into a well-off family in Seoul, was sent to Hawaii when she was 12 years old to develop her golf and ended up playing at Arizona State University, where she was a star. She won the 1998 U.S. Women's Amateur and had that T-8 in the 1999 U.S. Women's Open.
When she turned pro after that Women's Open, she went to the Futures Tour and won five times in 10 starts, earning her LPGA card. From 2000 through 2004, Grace won at least once each year, including her only major at the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship. But a victory later that year at the CJ Nine Bridges Classic was her last on tour.
"My back got really bad in 2005 and I should have taken care of it back then, but I was playing so well I just played with the pain and it became worse and worse," she said. "I was just on a downward spiral."
What followed was a series of ailments, including a bad back, neck pain
and hip surgery. This year, Park had won only $6,708 in seven events
before shooting 75-75 on Locust Hill CC and deciding to begin the next
phase of her life.
"I have no idea," Park said when asked what she will do next, besides getting married in the fall. "I just want to take some time off. I have been competing since I was 10 and now I want to take the time to find out what I like doing."
Money was never an issue for Park; her father is a wealthy restaurateur in Korea. And some though that because of that Grace at times did not work as hard as she should, especially in terms of taking care of her body, which started breaking down on her at an early age.
Pak still leads all Koreans with 25 LPGA victories, including five major championships. Mi Hyun Kim and Jiyai Shin are second among Koreans with eight wins each, while Park and Hee-Won Han have six. Of the nine Koreans who have won LPGA majors, Pak remains the only one from her homeland to have multiple major titles.
Grace certainly had the ability to join Se Ri as a multiple-major winner, but her body simply would not cooperate. Eight years after her greatest triumph at the tender age of 25 and the prospect of the bright future ahead of her, Park has nowhere near the resume most expected, largely because of bad luck in terms of her health.
The promise of her enormous potential evident that day on the practice range at Old Waverly was never fulfilled, but when she was good, Park was very, very good. On Friday at Wegmans -- knowing it was possibly her final round -- she finished like a champion, playing her last nine holes in 33 strokes.
Certainly earlier than she expected, Park will now embrace that day that lays ahead for all athletes -- the day when it becomes clear that the body will no longer follow the head and the heart to victory. For Park, it was a struggle, a downward spiral, that sadly began when she was only 25 and will end at Locust Hill CC.-- Ron Sirak