Annie Park lone Long Islander at U.S. Women's Open
Annie Park spoke volumes in winning the NCAA women's golf individual championship and leading USC to the team title last month. That isn't just a figure of speech. Her teammates said Park's chatter really helped.
That was one of the big upsets in the tournament: That an 18-year-old from Levittown, who always has made shyness an art form and who was immensely nervous starting college in the spring semester while she still could have been at MacArthur High School, could be a life-of-the-party team leader.
The other major upset, of course, was the fact that Park, a solid golfer but not considered a world-class competitor even after she won the Nassau boys high school tournament last spring, could go to college and instantly dominate.
"I was reading something about bamboo grass. It can take two years to grow three inches, then in the next two months it will grow four feet. I think we might have seen something like that in Annie,'' said Sean Foley, Park's swing coach since she was 13. Among Foley's other clients are Tiger Woods and Justin Rose, who just won the U.S. Open.
Foley's point is that there is no telling how high Annie Park can go from here, only that he would not be surprised by anything. She is going places, even when she comes home. Park is the lone Long Islander in the field this week in the first U.S. Women's Open to be held on the Island. After the championship at Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton -- a course she lists as her favorite in her official USC biography -- the rest of the golf world might know Park a lot better.
Evidently, there is a lot to learn, even for people who have been around her since her early teens. Who knew she had the personality to calm everyone else down? That is what teammates said about her after USC won the NCAA Tournament with a record margin.
"I don't think I have a bubbly personality,'' she said. "Once I got closer to them, I just wanted everybody to get closer together and have fun. I know golf is serious, but you have to have fun.''
But what about her dramatic improvement, from reticent newcomer who graduated early to the nation's top player?
"I know there was a lot of attention when she won the boys Nassau County title, that was big news. And she did pretty well, 18th or so in the junior golf rankings. But she knew she wasn't playing her best,'' said USC coach Andrea Gaston, who convinced Park that she was ready for college early. "Maybe she just got focused, being among better players . . . She was very disciplined. Her time management was amazing for someone who came in at 17 . . . You're never going to find a nicer person. She's very mellow.''
Foley made that observation, too. "I know Annie is from New York, but she's pretty 'California.' She's really chilling. She's like a female Freddie Couples,'' he said in a phone interview.
The swing coach, who likes to use metaphor, spoke of the kind of fire that Park has. "I tend to be dry pine. She is more what you're supposed to be: wet maple,'' he said, alluding to an ember that does not flame out so easily.
Foley said that, minutes after Park's NCAA championship round ended, she called him and was bitterly disappointed about making bogeys down the stretch and losing a shot at the scoring record.
On the other hand, he likes how she knows when to call timeout. In her mid-teens, she got sick of the incessant travel to junior tournaments, of having to celebrate her birthday at a table for two with her mom at an Outback Steakhouse in some city far from home. So she dropped golf for a while until the passion returned. "I remember telling her, 'I don't care how you're doing at 14,' " Foley said. "I'm interested in what you can do when you're 21.''
By then, she intends to be on the LPGA Tour. She said she plans on graduating from USC, although she might take summer classes on Long Island and get her college diploma early.
She still is unknown to top pro players and people who follow the women's tour. She played in the U.S. Women's Open last year in Kohler, Wis., and did not come close to making the cut.
"I feel like I can do better because I know what the course looks like, I've played there and I played pretty well," she said. "It's just going to be me and the golf course."
Park embraced Sebonack when she played it for the Metropolitan Golf Association in the French-American Challenge last fall. So there is a bit of a home-course advantage, along with knowing she'll have friends and relatives in the gallery.
Becky McDaid, who once was, like Park, a star at USC, then won the U.S. Women's Amateur and played on the LPGA Tour and is now an assistant pro at the exclusive Friar's Head in Riverhead, said it is "perfect" that a Long Islander is in Long Island's first Women's Open.
"Not only is she playing in it," McDaid said, "she's got a shot to win it."
Park is different than she was last year. Her game is stronger and more precise, her experience much broader. She knows how to grow.
"With all of my guys,'' said Foley, internationally famous for teaching Woods and for helping Rose become a major champion, "I wish I could talk to them like I talk to Annie.''