Sunday, March 27, 2005
Updated: April 15, 10:52 AM ET
By Jeff Bradley
There will be no belly buttons exposed today; it's freezing out. In fact, the question is not if I'll catch a glimpse of Grace Park's famous midriffbaring follow-through, but if she'll show up at all for our early-morning tee time.
The cold is no big deal for me. I'm a swingaid-infomercial-watching, new-driver-every-season-buying, forever-playing-to-a-14-handicap golfaholic. I'm in Scottsdale. It's December. And the course, a sweet track called Grayhawk, is so wide-open, our cart's going to be the first to spray dew off the fairways. The problem is not me. The problem is Park. "I think she'll be a no-show," I tell the starter, and who could blame her? Why would Grace Park, one of the best and richest players on the planet, tee it up with a hacker like me on a day like this? Oh, well. It was a fun idea. Then, miraculously, there she is, bundled up in an all-black Nike outfit, hands in her pockets, chin tucked inside the collar of her windbreaker, which is zippered up as high as it'll go. "You still want to play?" she asks. "Only if you do," I say, lying through my chattering teeth. "Then let's go." This woman is a dream come true. Not only is she a great player and great looking, she's also a junkie. In the past three seasons, she's climbed from No. 6 to No. 3 to No. 2 on the LPGA money list, but she doesn't need a seven-figure purse or No. 1 Annika Sorenstam in the field to want to tee it up. With barely a practice swing to warm up, Park belts her first drive down the middle, big. Her ball takes aerial footage of mine as it sails overhead.
"Nice shot," I say.
And that's about all Park has to say as she pars the first and second holes. She's perfectly nice, smoothly answering questions about her upbringing: born 26 years ago in Seoul and given the name Ji-Eun, then moving to the U.S. at age 11, where her dad renamed her after Grace Kelly. She talks about how she tried to fit in with American girls for much of her life, but how lately she's become more "Korea-ized," enjoying her country's food, music and traditions more than in the past.
But it's not until Park is about to hit her third shot on the par-5 fourth that she offers to tell me something "you probably don't know."
"What's that?" I ask.
"I hate golf," she says. "I think it's borrrrrring."
"But if you hate golf," I ask, my frozen breath swirling between us, "isn't this torture? Why don't we call it quits."
"Let me explain," she says. "I hate golf. But I love winning golf tournaments. That's not boring at all. That's a rush. Leisure golf? Not for me. But we might as well finish the nine."
THE ORIGINAL idea behind playing a side with Park was to find out how my B-flight game stacked up against a top female player. I've long heard guys at the 19th hole go on and on about how much easier LPGA courses are: short, wide-open tracks with easy pin placements and … sure, I'll have another. Thankfully, this part of the story ends here. Park can hit the ball 300 yards off the tee in 40° weather, dressed like an Eskimo. She hits iron shots that rocket toward the sky like Fourth of July fireworks and float back to earth in much the same manner, slowly melting on their way down to the green. Give it up, fellas. LPGA players are next level.
And Park is not your typical LPGA player. To find the best metaphor for her game, look to the back tees. Part Phil Mickelson: Park is a former ASU student with talent off the charts and the ability to hit shots that her Tour peers, Annika included, cannot even think of hitting. High-trajectory long irons, in particular. And like Lefty, Park won her first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a year ago, holing a slippery birdie putt on the final hole to avoid a playoff and take the victory.
Park is also part Vijay Singh, circa 2004: a No. 2 chasing a No. 1 who's dominated since the Clinton administration. No, Grace is not the worker bee that Vijay is, and she admits that she prefers shopping to chipping. But her desire to win is winning out over her desire to acquire. "I think it's very much like what Phil and Vijay and Ernie Els went through, chasing Tiger Woods," says Peter Kostis, Park's swing coach. "They all knew that to catch Tiger they'd have to work harder. Annika raised the bar the same way Tiger did, and Grace has responded. I'd call her a hard worker now."
Ultimately, the player Park is most like is probably Woods himself. Like Tiger, Park's talent was discovered and developed at an early age by an attentive father. She had a colossal amateur career, winning 55 U.S. titles before turning pro at age 20. Like Tiger, Kostis says, "Grace is extremely flexible. She has great timing and hand action." Like Tiger, Park was pegged by Nike to push its clothes and equipment. And like Tiger, Park's every move is followed by a prying media and legions of fans who just want to get close to her.
In Korea, that is.
Around her Scottsdale home, Park can shop the Galleria, sip a vanilla latte in Starbucks or go on a date and be just another pretty face in the crowd. In Korea, she's an A-list celeb who's been linked romantically to major league pitchers Chan Ho Park and Byung-Hyun Kim even though she's never dated either one. In Korea, Park and her friends can go out for drinks or karaoke only when a private room is arranged because the crush of fans would be too much. And in Korea, the sports media would certainly want to know why Park is out on the town when she should be home resting up for a good day of work at the practice range. "Sometimes," Park says with a shrug, "they even say things like I should worry more about my swing than the way I wear my lipstick or the outfit I'm going to wear on the course."
Which brings us back to navel gazing.
"My belly button," Park says with a laugh, "caused some controversy." In fact, if there is one thing that best sums up the dilemma Park faces as the most American of the 26 Korean women on Tour, it's her navel. On occasion, it peers out from beneath her shirt as she arches her back and finishes her swing. "It shouldn't be a big deal at all," Park says. "But in the U.S., people think it's cool, hip, whatever. In Korea, they're like, Slut!' "
Park says the Korean press also questioned her judgment after she won the Michelob Light Open at Kingsmill in 2003 and jumped for joy into the arms of her male caddie. "He lifted me up and I held on," Grace says. "When the pictures came out, they said I was straddling him. And then, of course, we were romantically linked. Whatever."
Same drill last year, when Park won the Kraft Nabisco and made the traditional leap into the pond by the 18th green. "I was wearing a white shirt," she says. "And there was some criticism that it was, you know, a little see-through."
Sitting in a restaurant now, Park admits that she took these digs to heart. She wondered if maybe she should tone down the outfits, even though they were far from the most provocative on Tour. She started wearing tops that were a little longer to prevent belly exposure, all out of respect for her culture. And two things happened. First, the carping did not stop. "Someone said my skirt was poorly designed, because it was so short that I had to worry about the wind blowing it up and showing my underwear," Park says with a how-did-my-life-come-to-this look of annoyance. "Well, it wasn't even a skirt. It was a skort. It has built-in shorts under it."
Second, Park realized that she missed the fun she used to have picking outfits that made her unique. "I tried to please all of Korea," she says. "Now I realize that's impossible. I'm going be Grace again. They'll just have to accept that I'm cross-cultural."
That was her father's plan all along. That's why Soo Nam Park gave his daughter an American name when he moved her to the States. "He was a fan of Grace Kelly," Grace says. "But I hated the name. Grace was the name of this Hyundai minivan. I did not want to have the same name as a minivan. But as time went on, I started to like it."
Her dad, a successful restaurateur, knew that the way his 8-year-old daughter hit a golf ball was not normal. "I've seen videos from when I was young," Grace says, "and the swing is pretty close to what you see now." Soo Nam also knew that living in Seoul, with a worse climate and fewer golf courses than Boston, would not be the ideal place to bring up a golf prodigy. "I have relatives in Hawaii," Grace says, "and a sister with bad allergies. My dad thought the weather in Hawaii would be good for both of us, so he arranged for us to live there with my relatives." That was 1990.
A couple of years later, Soo Nam moved Grace to Phoenix, where she lived first with a host family and then with a nanny in a house dad bought. The school and golf regimens were tough, and Park was not always the happiest camper. "I wasn't happy to get pulled away from my best friend's birthday party to go to the range to hit balls," she says. "In high school, there were times when I cut practice to go lay out by a pool with my friends." She did not relish the image of the sweet Korean girl who only studied and played golf. To this day, she says it's a big reason she "hates" her sport. Then, modifying an earlier thought, she quickly says: "But I love trying to win tournaments."
Trying. That's what last season was for Park. Although it was her first multiwin year on the LPGA Tour, she finished second in an excruciating seven tournaments, almost always due to a poor final round. "Overall, I'd be pleased with second place," she says. "But I'm not pleased with the way I played in most of those tournaments. I think winning will become easier now that I've done it a few times. But as much as the jump from No. 3 to No. 2 on the money list was nice, to go from No. 2 to No. 1 will be much, much harder."
And then there's the little matter of what No. 1 on the money list gets you in women's golf. Consider that Sorenstam (who earned $2.3 million in 2004) didn't make a name for herself with the mainstream American sports fan until she played in a men's event two years ago. Consider that the game's most recognizable face, Michelle Wie, while still an amateur, has designs on playing in men's events every year. Consider also that the LPGA's current flavor du jour is Natalie Gulbis, who has zero career wins but one hot calendar.
"For many years, Dennis Rodman drew more attention from the mainstream sports fan than David Robinson," says LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw. "It's not just an LPGA issue. It's a societal issue. But if Grace wants to concentrate on the LPGA Tour, she can do very well for herself."
Which is precisely what Park (who raked in $1.5 million last year) plans to do as the 2005 LPGA season gets into gear. "My approach," she says, "is to worry only about me. What Annika did was great, and Michelle Wie has been great for women's golf too." Still, Park won't play any men's events, except exhibitions like the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge. "I will not play from the men's tees," she says. "That's not fun for me."
Park also insists she doesn't believe in the whole "sex sells" thing. So don't look for any pinup pictures or swimsuit calendars. "I like nice clothes," she says. "I like for people to think I look pretty. I think any girl wants that. But I'm not going to do anything out there to shock people or draw attention to myself."
Unfortunately, just a few moments after saying this, Park is very much drawing stares. Her ball is buried in a bunker on the sixth hole. Literally buried. She takes one hack at it. It's now buried deeper. A second hack and the ball is out and on the green, but nowhere near the hole. I'm on in three. She lies four. I make bogey. She makes double. It is the only hole of the nine that I take from her. She is not happy.
"I hate golf," she says.
But I knew that already.