Following the second round of the 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship, the second Major of the 2012 LPGA calendar, 6-time tour winner Grace Park announced her retirement as a player. The news spread quickly among fans of the LPGA.
The first person to make me consistently pay attention to the LPGA was Se Ri Pak. Her tremendous success, culminating in a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame, kick-started my LPGA fandom. However, it wasn’t until I started following Grace that I went from fan to fanatic for the women’s golf tour. She had style, flair and substance. She was elegant and powerful. Having lived in the United States since age 12, Grace had a personality that mixed the best of two cultures. Wrapped into that personality was a playful, sly sense of humor. In a word, Grace Park was cool. And that made the LPGA cool in my eyes. That was important in turning me into an LPGA uber-fan. I was never much of a golf fan until Se Ri and Tiger Woods. However, even after they came on the professional scene, I was still in the wading pool. It was only after I started following Grace that I moved into the deep end. I watched in delight as she rose in the LPGA rankings until her career reached its summit in 2004 when she finished 2nd on the LPGA money list and won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. Arguably, at that moment she stood second only to Annika Sorenstam as the best player in the world.
Grace goes into the next phase of her life with so many achievements as a player. As an amateur she won the 1998 United States Women’s Amateur and won the 1996 Dial Award as the nation’s top female high school student athlete. She even tied for 8th place playing as an amateur at the 1999 United States Women’s Open. After turning pro, she easily qualified for the LPGA through her finish on the Futures Tour in 1999 where she won 5 of the 10 events she entered that year. She joined the LPGA in 2000, winning 6 events between 2000 and 2004, including a Major, the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
If there is any regret I have for Grace, it’s that her body began breaking down when she was nearing her goal. The last several years she has barely been able to keep any kind of consistent schedule. Her back and neck were especially problematic, forcing her to miss extended periods of time on tour. Even when she could play, she was rusty from having been out so long. So as great as her accomplishments on tour are, I truly feel they could have been even better. She was just realizing her potential in 2004 when her health started to let her down. In her retirement announcement she apologized for not taking care of her body. First of all, I don’t think she owes anybody an apology. Secondly, these things sometimes happen to athletes. It’s nobody’s fault. Chronic injuries sometimes strike an athlete, even one as good as Grace.
As Grace opens a new chapter in her life, I wish her every happiness. I also thank her for all the memories she gave to all of her fans. I will never forget the moment she drained that knee-knocking putt to win the 2004 Kraft Nabisco Championship after Aree Song dialed up the pressure. Grace is engaged to be married. I wish her and her future husband a long and joyous marriage. I hope she stays involved in golf. I think she belongs on camera in some fashion, either here on The Golf Channel or in her native South Korea. But I can’t lie. I am going to miss Grace Park on the LPGA Tour. Best wishes to her always.