There was a young boy, no older than 11 or 12, who was eating
cookies in the media room at last week's U.S. Women's Amateur at
Barton Hills Country Club in Ann Arbor, Mich. This was on
Sunday, during the title match between Jenny Chuasiriporn and
Grace Park, the two top-ranked players in the country. In the
midst of the hurly-burly, the boy asked a veteran United States
Golf Association official, who has worked the event for years,
"Who do you want to win, Jenny or Grace?"
The woman smiled. "Well," she said, "we are the USGA."
Chuasiriporn, the American-born child of Thai immigrants, is a
terrific person and a fine athlete, and as her decision to
remain at Duke for her senior year attests, more than just a
walking, talking golf machine. Yet Park's dominant 7 and 6
victory over Chuasiriporn in the final was not only an inspiring
triumph by one of the game's dynamic young talents but also an
important lesson. "Korean golfers are just like golfers anywhere
else," said Park, a sophomore at Arizona State who, despite
living in the U.S. for seven years, is seen as a South Korean
first and foremost. "People always make comparisons, but I am my
own golfer, just as Se Ri [Pak] is her own golfer. We are
completely different players."
Throughout last week's Amateur, and throughout a summer during
which she has also won the Women's Western and the Women's
Trans-National (she smoked Chuasiriporn 5 and 4 in the second
round), Park has been peppered with questions about Pak, the
LPGA rookie who has won two majors. How are you like Se Ri? How
did she influence your game? Do you know her? Can you beat her?
Will you join her as a pro? Will South Koreans embrace you both?
August 23, 1998
Perhaps the one person best qualified to provide some answers is
Chuasiriporn, who lost a 20-hole playoff to the stoic Pak in the
Open. "I don't know Se Ri very well," Chuasiriporn said, "but
Grace seems nothing like her. She has more of a style. She shows
a lot of emotion when she plays. She talks and smiles."
"People love to see emotion," added Mike LaBauve, Park's swing
coach and, for the Amateur, her caddie. "That's what's so great
about Grace. Her facial expressions tell what she's feeling, and
she's not afraid of that."
For a 19-year-old college student, Park seems to be afraid of
very little. After cruising through most of her bracket at
Barton Hills, she faced a major roadblock in last Saturday's
semifinal in Marcy Newton, the 1995 U.S. Junior champion who is
a junior at North Carolina. Park rallied from three down by
firing five straight birdies down the stretch to win 2 and 1.
That just warmed up Park for Chuasiriporn, who had held off
Brandi Miller, a Miami grad from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., in 21
holes in the other semi.
Before Sunday's final, Chuasiriporn said she was itching to make
up for her loss at the Trans National. "I told Grace, 'I want
you,'" she said. Otherwise, there was little conversation
between the two contestants. Park began the scheduled 36-hole
match by firing a 278-yard bullet off the 1st tee and making par
to Chuasiriporn's bogey. At the 509-yard par-5 2nd hole, Park
reached the green in two and two-putted for birdie to go 2 up.
At the 3rd, Park's par gave her a 3-up lead. Chuasiriporn never
recovered. By the end of the first 18, she was 5 down and could
never gain any ground in the afternoon session, which ended when
Park parred the 30th hole to close out the match.
After the two golfers had embraced and congratulated each other,
Chuasiriporn said she was done in by Park's fast start and her
own inability to make the putts she had routinely sank earlier in
the week. "I didn't have my stroke today," Chuasiriporn said. "It
was frustrating, missing shots that I usually make."
Even if Chuasiriporn had played her best, it was hard to
envision her beating Park, a heralded junior golfer who was
named the American Junior Golf Association player of the year
twice, in 1994 and '96. The 5'6", 133-pound Park is smaller than
Pak (5'7", 147 pounds) but hits the ball farther. Both are weak
putters, but Park rolled the ball beautifully at Barton Hills.
"I really believe she's the Number 1 talent anywhere in the
women's game," says LaBauve. "She'll be one of the great players."
Like Pak, Park moved to the U.S. solely to sharpen her game.
When she was 12, her father, Soon Nam, sent her to Hawaii to
live with an aunt and practice golf. "That's the age when my
family and I started thinking about careers," says Park. "We
knew this could be what I did." Grace (her real name is Ji Eun,
but her father gave her the American nickname) lived in Honolulu
for two years, then moved in with a boarder family in Phoenix
because "after looking around at different states," she says,
"Arizona was the great one for golf."
By that time Park was beginning to miss home. "I left Korea for
Hawaii when I was at that rebellious age," Park says. "I wasn't
sad. Once I was a junior in high school, though, I started
missing everyone--especially my mom. I wanted to see her more, but
what could I do?" Instead of turning pro after high school, Park
opted for Arizona State and last year helped the Sun Devils win
the NCAA title.
This summer Soon Nam, who owns a steel company in the family's
hometown of Seoul, accompanied his daughter on the amateur
circuit. At the Amateur he wore a big straw sun hat and dark
glasses and on Sunday followed the action by peeking over the
shoulders of taller members of the gallery. After the final putt
had dropped, he hugged Grace as tears streamed from her eyes. A
beaming Soon Nam pulled out his cell phone and called home, where
Grace's mother, Jin Ae, was up in the middle of the night,
waiting for the good news.
Then there were more hugs, and a kiss or three. It was a
wonderful South Korean moment.