LPGA star discusses dreams, disappointment, and discovery
Unassuming – it’s a word that comes to mind when the topic of discussion turns to Annie Park. Her comportment on and off the golf course projects an image of someone confident, friendly, and yes, unassuming. These qualities have endeared Annie to her friends and family, not to mention many of her colleagues on tour.
Born into a Korean American family, Annie Park hails from Levittown, New York; the youngest of three siblings – all sisters. Unless you are a friend or neighbour, it is background information that one hardly knows. Like other players on the LPGA Tour, Annie Park is a rather modest individual that goes about her business on the golf course, playing well enough to earn a living from the sport that she’s loved since childhood.
It was her mother that first introduced her to the sport of golf, and like many of her contemporaries, she grew up watching both Annika Sorenstam and Se Ri Pak ply their craft on tour. Both women have had a profound influence on the sport – Annika with her dominance and achievements. Se Ri Pak for her famous win at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open (USWO), becoming an instant catalyst for the explosion of golf in her native South Korea.
It is rather fitting that these were Annie Park’s two biggest sporting influences. With her win at the USWO, Se Ri Pak became an instant source of inspiration for many of today’s star players from South Korea. Sorenstam’s stream of success meant that she too became an important source of inspiration for many young girls in the United States and throughout the English speaking world. For Annie Park, it was natural for her to find inspiration with both. Her South Korean origin meant that Se Ri Pak was an easy star to identify with just as being an American, she could appreciate and idolize the golfing achievements of Annika Sorenstam.
Success had been a significant part of Annie Park’s early career, both as a junior player, carrying over into the amateur and collegiate ranks. She joined the USC Trojans (University of Southern California), for the winter semester in 2013 immediately after she finished high school in December 2012. As a freshman player with USC, Park individually won 4-events, including the NCAA Division 1 Individual championship while leading her Trojans to the National Team Championship. That same season, she claimed the Honda Award for the top NCAA Division 1 athlete in Golf.
It was in March 2015, while preparing for the national championships with her USC teammates, that Annie Park experienced her first significant obstacle in her young adult life. She was diagnosed with cancer of the thyroid, eventually leading to surgery that included removing her thyroid gland. Despite the surgery, the quiet and unassuming Park recuperated from surgery, including a daily regimen of medication, to play in the national championships again.
“That 2015 year was just so crazy for me. In March, I had a thyroidectomy. I went into the surgery mainly to just get my nodules removed and the doctors decided to remove the thyroid completely just so the nodules don't come back or anything else. So that was a huge surgery for me during that year. Then you know, played Nationals and that was the first year that they changed to Match Play. So, I was able to experience the first year of the Match Play. I honestly really wanted to win the Nationals with my team because it would have been very memorable if my last Nationals we win, and I turned pro.”
While her Trojans did not win the National Championship that year, she decided to turn professional, pursuing her dream of playing on the LPGA Tour. Her first stop was the Symetra Tour, joining midseason, after having had some time to continue recuperating from her surgery. Her success at USC followed Park to the Symetra Tour where she captured Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year. She won 3—times that season, finishing as the top player on the Symetra Tour, winning automatic promotion to the LPGA Tour. Her dream of playing on the LPGA Tour was about to be realized in 2016
A Bittersweet Dream
Despite earning full privileges as an LPGA Tour member for 2016, Annie Park found her rookie year to be one of the most challenging experiences in her young professional career. In addition to maintaining a normal practice routine of golf, short game, training, and proper nutrition, she had the added pressure of having to perform on a regular basis so that she could earn enough money and points to keep her LPGA status. She also assumed full responsibility for her tour schedule, booking travel and accommodations – something that she found herself ill prepared for.
“I think the rookie year on the LPGA is probably the toughest year because I mean you come on to tour not knowing that travel is going to be more hectic than you've ever experienced. And now it's all about the pressure that you have to play well to maintain your card. I didn't know what I was going into, I guess. I was going into the dream but then was faced with reality that you have a lot of travel; you have to play . . . have to finish a certain spot to keep your card and more.”
As challenging as it may have been, 2017 would prove to be even more so for Annie Park. Up until that point in her golf career, a serious body injury was something that she never experienced. But 2017 proved to be the most challenging for Annie since her thyroid surgery in 2015, developing a back injury that greatly affected her play. A good example of the effect that her back injury had on her play can be found when comparing her 2016 season with 2017. She finished the 2016 season with $172, 337 in official money, falling to $59,914 the following year in 2017 and losing her status on the LPGA.
“Going into 2017 was tougher because I never went through a body injury. And then my back flared up. And I couldn't play for the first couple events. I was out for about three months. (Prior) I never experienced what a flare up was. Not only was it physically challenging, but mentally and emotionally you're just not able to do anything because you can't move. I had to go through a huge swing change from my back injury. My strongest part of my game was my long game. My ball striking was probably my strength, then, ever since, I had to go through a swing change to alleviate the back pain. And eventually, it (long game and ball striking) was not my strength anymore.”
The back injury and the drop in her performance brought Annie Park to the lowest point in her life as a professional player. Losing her LPGA status brought her face to face with some of the most difficult decisions she’s had to make, including whether to call time on her golf career and look at moving into something else. In December 2017, after the season ended, Annie Park was preparing to walk away from golf. “I decided December of 2017. . . I don't think I want to play this sport again. I think I'm kind of done.”
After dealing with the adversity of her thyroid surgery, the battle to adapt to rookie life on the LPGA Tour, and then her back injury and loss of her tour status , Annie Park was quitting golf. But her family and friends intervened, talking openly and frankly with Annie about the permanency of her decision and the eventual regrets that may come to haunt her in future.
First, it was a close friend that spoke to Annie about changing up her putter, introducing her to the long putter that is far more common on the men’s tours by players like Bernhard Langer, Adam Scott, and Keegan Bradley. It was intended to help alleviate the pain in her back that often accompanied the use of the shorter, traditional putter and aggravated by her back injury.
Then it was one of her sisters that spoke to Annie about taking one more shot at professional golf, making sure that she gave it her best effort so that if she walked away from golf she would do so knowing that she gave it her all.
“One of my best friend at the time, was like, ‘Hey, why don't make you a long putter, just try out a long putter’. And I was like my whole game is just kind of like not feeling right. So he said ‘I'll just make it so (he) made me a long putter out of his garage’ and he sent it to me. (Then) I talked to my sister – she’s like why don't you just give it another year? Because I don't want you to regret not giving it all of your best and that you could have done a lot more and looking back, like I just don't want you to regret it . . .why don't you give it more than 100% and just give it your all out there.”
Sometimes in life, when a person is going through a personal crisis, it takes a loving family and caring friends to intervene – to assist in bringing greater clarity to the situation in the hope that a choice is made that is well reasoned and considered. And Annie Park was blessed and fortunate in that regard.
In the absence of full playing privileges on the LPGA and armed with her long putter, she would eventually enroll in “Monday Qualifiers” to play for the chance to win one of the two spots up for grabs in that week’s event. Her strategy paid off as she won a spot in the Lake Merced event – the LPGA Mediheal Championship. She played well enough, finishing with a share of 18th place, that enabled her to move up the priority list after the traditional spring reshuffle. She made it into the LPGA’s Volunteers of America event in Dallas, and 4-weeks later, she made it into the ShopRite LPGA Classic.
Played in Galloway, New Jersey, the ShopRite Classic is just a two hour drive from her hometown, effectively making the ShopRite a home event for Annie Park. It turned out to be a very special event for her as she played great golf that weekend, capped off with a tournament tying low score record of 63 on the last day to win by a single stroke. It was her first win on the LPGA Tour, “for my family to all come out and watch was huge. For my family and my friends to be able to come out and watch me play and share that special moment with me just made it that that much more special.”
Annie Park would go on to finish the season with over $500,000 in season earnings, easily her most successful year on tour at that time. She then qualified on merit for the 2019 United States Solheim Cup team. After her dark and troubled period adjusting to life on the LPGA Tour, combatting thyroid surgery and a significant back injury, Annie Park succeeded in overcoming those challenges to enjoy more halcyon days. The quiet, dignified response to the adversity and difficulties that Annie Park faced belies the uneasy reality of summoning the courage and bravery to confront the situation and prevail. In many respects, it is a testament to the grace and class of Annie Park.