Teen Park prepares to play in U.S. Open

MacArthur High School's Annie Park was all smiles

MacArthur High School's Annie Park was all smiles after winning the Nassau County High School Boys Golf Championships. (May 23, 2012) (Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams, Jr.)

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The oddest thing has been happening to Annie Park in the past month since she became the first girl to win the boys Nassau County high school golf championship and had her picture on the front page of the newspaper:

People have been asking for her autograph.

Some things haven't changed. Her friends at MacArthur High in Levittown still use the two-word nickname "Golf Girl," coined by Long Island golfers with whom she was randomly paired when she went out to play (they saw a youngster and thought, "This is going to be a long day," then changed their tune with her first drive). Lately, though, she has been approached by strangers to write two other words: "Annie Park."

For that experience, the 17-year-old has one word: "Awkward."

She said it with a laugh, indicating it is not a big problem. It is part of the give-and-take between being an international junior golfer and being just a regular teenager. That involves reaching a quarterfinal of the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links last week but knowing that the makeup of the U.S. history regents beckons in August.

A public course golfer and public school student, Park is preparing for the ultimate public showing. This week she will play in the U.S. Women's Open.

"I'm excited for it, but I don't want to set my standards so high," she said recently after practice on the driving range at Bethpage State Park. "I just want to go out there and play my own golf, as I always do. That's the hard part.

"I like how when you play golf, you're playing against yourself, not other people," she said.

Park will be joined at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., by Kelly Shon of Port Washington, who, like Park, is from a family that relocated from South Korea to Long Island.

Shon's father is a doctor who was on a temporary assignment in New York. The family liked it here and decided to stay. She will be a junior at Princeton and has played in many of the same tournaments as Park. She also stood out in the Nassau high school boys tournament two years ago, finishing second to Farmingdale eighth-grader Matt Lowe, who was second to Park this year.

It will be the second consecutive trip to the Open for Shon and it will be a first for Park, who gained major attention the last time she recorded a first. She broke the county boys scoring record by six strokes, shooting 8 under par through two rounds on Bethpage Red.

That was neither her biggest tournament nor her greatest win. Park defeated Cheyenne Woods, Tiger's niece, to reach the semifinals of last year's Public Links in Bandon Dunes, Ore. The victory over the boys, though, hit home on Long Island.

"After that, my friends were like, 'We're going to play golf this weekend.' I was like, 'Oh, really. Well, I'll teach you,' " she said, adding that they have since put off the lessons until fall, after a bunch of tournaments and a trip with her mother, Ann, to South Korea.

"She needs a vacation," her mother said. The same could be said for the mother, given that she has been known to caddie for her daughter in one tournament and then drive seven hours to the next one.

Park's parents moved to New Orleans in the early 1980s, when her father was in the import business. They moved to Long Island in 1987 as the parents established a chain of salons.

Without going into detail, Annie said that her father isn't in the picture at the moment. Her mother, who owns the Angel Tips nail salon in Glen Head, is the golfer's travel coordinator, confidante and companion.

Partly, Ann does it because a mother would do whatever she can to help a child prepare for the future. She also does it because she always just tries to help. Annie said her mother has coordinated outreach programs for the poor at various churches. The golfer added that Bo, the younger of her two older sisters, manages the salon and has caddied for her occasionally.

"Through hard times, I realized how important my mom and sister are because they were there for me," Annie said. "Through golf, I learned how important family is."

Yes, there are such things as hard times for a prodigy who has played tournament golf in France and moved to Florida at 12 so she could attend a golf academy. It all became so overwhelming when she was 13 that she took six months off. A half-year is no small hiatus on the intensely competitive junior circuit, where golfers rarely take a week off.

She moved back to Levittown and traveled to Florida for lessons with Sean Foley, who has since become famous as Tiger Woods' swing coach. "I think that was the turning point in my life," she said. "Every time I go to a lesson, he teaches me not only how to play good golf but how to live a good life."

Foley, while watching Woods at the Masters, said of Park, "She can be as good as she wants to be."

Already she is good enough to have won a scholarship to USC, where she will begin next spring after graduating from MacArthur in January (the Nassau boys won't have to worry about a repeat next May).

Her past few years have been pointing toward a career on the LPGA Tour. "I do want to turn pro,'' she said, "but I don't know if I'll adapt to the society of it."

People who know Park call her a good soul, as adept at politeness as she is at hitting tee shots that travel 250 yards in the air. "She is awesome. She is the real deal," said Ed Gibstein, a top Long Island amateur and reigning Richardson Memorial champion who got to know Park because his wife goes to the nail salon.

"I'm excited to see how she's going to do in the Women's Open," Gibstein said. "She's like a young Yani . She has a shot to be a major force."

Park has other goals, too, such as the regents and getting her driver's license. But this week, for the first time, she will be both a regular teenager and a major competitor.

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