LI golf champ gets early start at USC

Annie Park packs her luggage at her Levittown

Annie Park packs her luggage at her Levittown home before leaving for college at USC. (Jan. 5, 2013) (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

Levittown teenager Annie Park, who last May became the first girl to win the Nassau boys high school golf championship, is ready for her next challenge.

She packed her bags and headed out to Los Angeles to start her college life one semester early at the University of Southern California last week.

"I have mixed feelings over this," Park said before leaving. "I'm excited. I'm also nervous because I don't know what's going to happen when I get there."

Park, 17, got her first driver's license, which arrived in the mail days before she left, and went skating with friends one last time. Then she left with her mother, Ann, and sister, Bo, for her next big step. Park will be a scholarship athlete on one of the top women's golf teams in the country.

There was no formal ceremony when she left MacArthur High School for the last time on Dec. 21, only some friendly goodbyes to friends and teachers.

Straight-A student

An A student in high school, she had considered going the usual route, starting college in the fall. But USC coach Andrea Gaston, whose team has won two NCAA titles in 10 years and has been in the top five each of the past seven seasons, suggested Park start early.

"I knew she was a good student, and I knew Levittown. I knew it's a good school system," said the coach, whose parents used to live in New York City and had best friends in Levittown. Gaston has seen Park's finishes in national-caliber tournaments since she was 13 and is convinced the Levittown prodigy is mature enough to make the big jump.

Park checked with her guidance counselor and found she had enough credits to earn her diploma -- which she will pick up when she returns home for graduation and the prom in June.

"She has a great personality. She will be a great fit," Gaston said. "We have a lot of girls who are serious about their golf, and their academics."

Park decided to make college her next challenge since she knows she isn't ready to turn pro -- unlike New Zealander Lydia Ko, who won an LPGA Tour event at 15 last year, or Floridian Lexi Thompson, who won on the same women's pro circuit at 16 in 2011.

Eye on pros

But turning pro is certainly the goal. "I wanted to graduate early because I believe I will have a head start to prepare myself for the pros," Park said.

Although Park received front-page attention by beating the boys by a record six strokes at the county championship on the Bethpage Red Course last spring, her biggest achievement of 2012 was finishing first -- ahead of some pros -- at a sectional qualifier for the U.S. Women's Open.

"I'm really very proud," said her mother, who has caddied for her at many tournaments. Bo, who helps run the family's nail salon in Glen Head, said, "When you see athletes in the newspaper and on TV, it's one thing. But when it's your sister, it's almost surreal."

Park will try to qualify again this year, with the Women's Open coming to Long Island for the first time, at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton.

"That might be my favorite course in the world," she said. "I already feel the pressure now."

But the Open can wait. Now, she is busy being the new kid on a big campus.

"I'm going to have to work harder, I'm going to have to manage my time in college and focus on what I'm doing," said Park, who out-drives most of the boys she competes against. . She isn't in the pros' class yet, but she plans to get there. "After," she said, "I graduate."

LI's GOLF PRODIGY

Name: Annie Park

Age: 17

Graduated from: MacArthur High School in Levittown

College: University of Southern California

Expected major: Marketing, with an emphasis on fashion (wants to design her own clothing line)

Favorite non-golf trip: South Korea, in August to visit relatives and her mother's friends

FAvorite restaurant: Minado Japanese Seafood Buffet, Carle Place

Favorite TV shows: Korean-language programming (rarely watches golf)

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