Inbee Park dominated the Girls’ Junior field from start to finish, extending the Korean influence on the female game
Story reprinted from September 2002 issue of Golf Journal magazine
By David Shefter
The members at Echo Lake Country Club should have seen this coming. At least those who were around eight years ago when the Westfield, N.J., club hosted its last (and first) USGA championship, the U.S. Junior Amateur. The champion then was Terry Noe, a Korean who had been in the U.S. for 20 months. He was the first foreign-born player to claim that title, and a portent of things to come from Korea.
Indeed, this relatively small Asian country has become a veritable giant in golf. This is especially true on the women’s side, where wave after wave of Korean players have not only made their mark on the LPGA Tour, but also at various levels of amateur competition.
|Inbee Park burst onto the national scene with her 2002 victory at the U.S. Girls' Junior. (USGA Museum)
And so, on the same late-July weekend that Koreans captured titles on the LPGA Tour and Futures Tour, a 14-year-old girl who, like Noe, had recently moved to the U.S. to get an education on and off the golf course, dominated a strong field at Echo Lake to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship. Displaying an impressive combination of power, accuracy and dexterity, Inbee Park became the second-youngest Girls’ Junior champion by defeating 17-year-old Jennifer Tangtiphaiboontana of Long Beach, Calif., 4 and 3. Park also became the 13th medalist to win the event, the first since 1997.
Park’s first name means good queen in Korean and she was a gracious one. "This is a dream come true," said Park, who has been in the U.S. just 12 months and still struggles with English. "I’m very honored to be on the trophy."
Park’s win was the third Girls’ Junior title by a foreign-born player in the last four years, joining 2001 winner Nicole Perrot of Chile and 1999 champ Aree Song Wongluekiet of Thailand and Korea (with one parent from each country, she has dual citizenship).
The Korean movement can be traced back as far as 1988, when Pearl Sinn (now a U.S. citizen) won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and Women’s Amateur titles. Ten years later, 20-year-old Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open in a dramatic playoff and Grace Park, who attended high school and college in the U.S., won the Women’s Amateur. Neither was a fluke: Park and Pak are among five Koreans who ranked in the top 20 on the 2002 LPGA Tour money list through Aug. 15. Eleven Koreans are competing regularly on the LPGA Tour this year and another 11 play on the Futures Tour. At the Girls’ Junior, nine players were Korean-born; seven of them advanced to match play.
A lot of those girls are coming over here for better opportunities," said Hannah Jun, Park’s 20-hole semifinal victim and herself a Korean-American (her parents immigrated 25 years ago). "The [U.S.] has better golf courses, better [practice facilities] and better coaches. The chances to get better are here. I expect many more to come."
Golf is not affordable to the masses in Korea. Charlie Yoo, Park’s coach, moved from Seoul 16 years ago and serves as director of golf at Black Bear Golf Club in Eustis, Fla., north of Orlando. Yoo says 90 percent of the courses in Korea are private and that guest fees run as high as $200. What courses are accessible often don’t have practice facilities. As a result, Park, who took up the game four years ago at the insistence of her father, Gungyu, became what Yoo calls a "range rat," honing her game almost entirely at the driving range. That was, until her family moved to Florida last year. The Parks contacted Yoo and enrolled Inbee at the Christian Home and Bible School in Mt. Dora, Fla.
Since her arrival in the U.S., Park has risen quickly through the junior ranks, winning the 2001 Westfield (Ohio) Junior PGA Championship (she was second this year) and the 2002 American Junior Golf Association Girls’ Junior Championship in Daytona Beach. She was second at the ’02 AJGA Thunderbird International Junior in Scottsdale, Ariz.
"How old is she?" asked Jean Reynolds, who fell to Park in a 22-hole quarterfinal marathon. When told Park was 14, she added, "That’s awesome. She is an excellent player."
Added Sara Brown, a 7-and-5 first-round loser: "She is so good right now. Her swing is always pretty much the same. She doesn’t try to kill it. She hits it normal and it goes straight."
And far. At 6,353 yards, Echo Lake, designed by Donald Ross with the help of George Low, was the longest course by five yards in Girls’ Junior history. Early in the week, some players complained about the length, saying it gave longer hitters too much of an advantage. Park, who easily averaged 250 yards off the tee, and a few other bombers benefitted from the course setup, but a lack of distance didn’t preclude success. At 5-foot-4 inches and 110 pounds, finalist Tangtiphaiboontana was not a rocket launcher.
Instead, Tangtiphaiboontana, who lost both of her parents last November in an automobile accident, relied on accuracy off the tee and a deft putting touch – the latter a gift that stayed with her until the final, when she converted just one birdie opportunity, to halve the par-5 fourth hole. Ironically, putting was Tangtiphaiboontana’s downfall. Trailing 3-down at the turn, she missed a critical birdie putts of 6 feet at the 10th and 12th holes. Park then holed a 6-footer at the par-4 13th to take a commanding 4-up lead and the match ended two holes later with another Park birdie.
"When I missed the one on 10, I was like, ‘Okay, whatever,’ " she said. "When I missed it on 12, I was like, ‘Uh oh, it’s down to six holes. I’m going to have to pull a miracle.’ "
Tangtiphaiboontana had converted four birdies in Friday’s 2-and-1 semifinal win over Allison Martin and survived extra-hole matches with Amie Cochran and Chris Brady.
Park, meanwhile, used her length to advantage by consistently trying to drive the severely uphill 234-yard, par-4 second hole. In her 20-hole semifinal, she reached the green from the tee and two-putted for birdie to vanquish Jun. She reached the 479-yard, downhill par-5 fourth hole with a driver and 3-iron in the quarterfinal win over Reynolds.
"That’s the strength of her game," said Yoo. "She hits a very high ball, so she was able to carry a lot of the trees and cut the corners [of the doglegs]."
She was the only player to break par in stroke play (5-under 141), and in six matches she was the equivalent of one stroke over par. Because Park is shy and her English is limited, Yoo serves as her interpreter as well as her coach. He even wrote her speech for the trophy presentation, which she managed to read without too much trouble.
"She doesn’t speak a lot of English, but she understands golf terms," said caddie Will Schnorr. "Whatever I could tell her about the course, she understood."
When Echo Lake hosted the Junior Amateur, the field included future USGA champions David Gossett (1999 U.S. Amateur), Hunter Haas (1999 Amateur Public Links) and D.J. Trahan (2000 APL), as well as future professionals Charles Howell III, James Driscoll and Bryce Molder. Noe, who beat them all, also turned pro, but his career has been less than fruitful.
No one knows what will become of the ’02 Girls’ Junior cast. Park has aspirations of following countrywomen Pak, Mi Hyun Kim, Grace Park and Gloria Park into elite circles. That’s why she came to the U.S. "She wants to go to college and then to the LPGA Tour," says Yoo.
Perhaps eight years from now, we will see if Inbee Park has a chance of fulfilling that dream.