Annie Park, the nation's top collegiate golfer, found herself playing beat-the-clock Saturday -- even during her high school graduation ceremony.
Park, the University of Southern California golf prodigy who became the first girl to win the Nassau high school boys tournament a year ago, was back on Long Island to walk with her former MacArthur High School classmates in their graduation ceremony at Hofstra University.
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The Levittown native and her family had hoped to duck out by 2:30 p.m. to catch a 5 p.m. flight out of LaGuardia. But at 2:26 she was still wearing her cap and gown, and waiting. Then at 2:27 p.m., Park's name was called and she was handed her diploma. She had barely enough time to receive congratulations and pose for photographs before rushing for the exit with her sister, Bo Park, and her mother, Young Hee Park.
"I'm grateful for this experience, being able to walk with my class, and I'm glad to see my friends again," Park said shortly after noon Saturday. "But I'm actually supposed to be in Oklahoma right now."
Park will compete in the U.S. Women's Public Links Championship there tomorrow.
The 18-year-old completed high school in December and began classes at USC in the spring. She led Southern Cal to the NCAA golf championship last month and then qualified for the U.S. Women's Open in Southampton.
"It's a little disappointing not being able to stay and fully enjoy it," Park said, "but the biggest thing for me was the experience, going to prom, and putting on the cap and gown. I'm happy I got that."
Park, who received a few autograph requests from students Saturday, will next be on Long Island at the end of this month. Her 8 under par at a sectional qualifier at Edgewood Country Club in New Jersey earned her a berth in the U.S. Women's Open, where she will compete against the world's elite. This year's event, beginning June 27, will be at Sebonack Golf Club, which Park said is her favorite course.
But more frequent flier miles will be accumulated before then. Park will travel from Oklahoma to California to receive the Honda Sports award for collegiate golf on June 24, then return to New York.
"We text every day, but I've still missed her since she went off to college," said Vicky Zhao, Park's best friend and a MacArthur senior headed to Adelphi University. "It's been great to have her back, even for a little while. We've been able to hang out and go to the beach. I'm glad she at least got the chance to enjoy prom last week."
Said Park: "Sometimes I regret not getting more done with my friends and [being] more like a regular kid, but I realize I have these [golf-related] opportunities now and I have to take them."
Park, who said she posted a 3.66 GPA in her first college semester, graduated as a "four-year Renaissance card holder," a member of MacArthur's specialized program for students who excel academically. Photos and posters of her plaster the school walls, said Claritza Baquero, Park's friend and a senior committed to Liberty University.
"It's awkward seeing all the attention and everything around her," said Bo Park, 31. "I'm proud of her, not only for all she has accomplished, but because she hasn't let it get to her. She's remained the same person."