As 18-year-old Annie Park approached the first tee Wednesday at Sebonack Golf Club for her 1:03 p.m. practice round, she stopped for a TV interview and signed a bevy of autographs before joining USC teammate Kyung Kim and former USC star Lizette Salas, who comically rushed over and pleaded, "Will you please sign my yardage book?"
Amid the laughter, an embarrassed Park said, "Stop it."
And so it began for the Levittown native who in the spring of 2012 won the Nassau County boys golf tournament then completed her studies early at McArthur High and enrolled at USC for the 2013 spring semester before leading the Trojans to the NCAA team title while winning the individual title. Park's spectacular play recently has Long Island fans dreaming big things for her in the 68th U.S. Women's Open.
At the second tee, one fan shouted, "Keep the trophy on Long Island." At every hole, Park obliged every autograph seeker since it was a practice day. That doesn't happen in high school or college golf, but she goes off the 10th tee at 12:52 this afternoon as the home-island hero.
How will she deal with the attention? "I've had a taste today," Park said after playing 18 holes. "It was kind of crazy. I wasn't really expecting this much. I know people are going to come out and watch, but I didn't expect it to be such a crazy thing. I'm just going to have to do my best to block it out."
In the big picture, the favorite is Inbee Park, who is No. 1 in the world and has five wins this year, including the first two majors. But it almost seems as if the pressure of expectations weighs more heavily on the local Park.
"Today, it was very memorable to see people who support you," Annie Park said. "It seems like they have high expectations. For me, I have very low expectations for myself. I know I'll play my best if I keep low expectations."
Park's mother Ann walked every step of the practice round with her daughter and observed that she seemed tired after going to California to accept an ESPN award as the top women's collegiate golfer Monday night and then taking the red-eye flight to arrive Tuesday. Ann Park reported her daughter slept in until 10 Wednesday morning.
Earlier this year, Salas, who is 11th on the LPGA money list, had dinner with Park and advised her on how to handle all the attention she's begun to receive. "For her resume, her ability, her talent, I think she deserves it," Salas said. "This is good for her to get a feel of what it's going to be like if she continues to dominate.
"The fact she's out here having fun and being herself, I think that's why the fans love her. She's so lovely and very humble. I just try and have her relaxed and give her some advice . . . It's OK to acknowledge fans because they're out here supporting us, but at the same time, it's your job and you have to look out for yourself."
In her first U.S. Women's Open last year at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, Park didn't come close to making the cut, but now a top-10 finish is not unthinkable. "I mean, I definitely feel mature because I've been there," she said. "I know what it's like . . . That would be nice [to contend], but we'll see how it goes."