-- The look of ecstasy on Grace Park's face captured by the cameras an instant before her feet hit the water beside the 18th green at Mission Hills Country Club in March was one of the more indelible images of the women's golf season. For Park, that victory leap in the lake after securing her first major title at the Kraft Nabisco Championship should also serve as a reminder of how much enjoyment she can take from a game that made her so miserable early in her professional career.
"I struggled so much for that first couple of years," said Park, now 25 and in her fifth full season on the LPGA Tour, as she attempts to win her second straight major title at the LPGA Championship starting Thursday at DuPont Country Club. "I wasn't the person I had always been.
"But in a way, I'm glad it happened early in my professional career instead of having that slump, that mental disaster in the middle of my career. I got it out of the way. I know how it feels to play horrible and be miserable. I don't want to go back to that stage again, so I'm happier now and I work harder."
Park, a native of South Korea who moved to the United States at age 12 to improve her game, is also being appreciated worldwide as one of the LPGA's most luminous young rising stars. Only the indomitable Annika Sorenstam stands between her and being the No. 1 player on the tour. Park is ranked second behind Sorenstam in scoring average (69.12), earnings ($665,702) and player of the year points, with very slim margins separating the two in all three categories.
An official rankings system will be put in place next season, but when Park was asked Wednesday where she would rank herself at the moment, she said: "Two, right now, and hopefully it will go up. . . . I just know there is one person ahead of me."
Park had always been No. 1 coming up through the ranks, both in junior golf and as a two-year starter for Arizona State. She was expected, by her peers and by herself, to vault to similar heights far sooner in her professional career. But Park makes no excuses for her early struggles, blaming no one but the immaculately dressed, impeccably made-up young woman she saw in the mirror every day.
"It wasn't anything physical, it was more mental," she said two months ago. "I just wasn't ready to be out here, playing full time. My mind was just always wandering, wandering. Should I still be in school? Not wanting to have all the responsibilities of being a professional, that obviously had huge effects on my golf game. I wasn't happy on the golf course, but when I was off the golf course, I was stressing over not practicing or playing well. It took me a couple of years to realize that this is what I really want to do and this is my life, my work, and something I dreamed to do."
Park said she can't point to any particular event or personal epiphany that changed her attitude. At the end of the 2001 season, she said she took a month off in December and went home to South Korea, where her parents, both enthusiastic golfers, own two of the country's largest restaurants. She decided to go skiing and put her clubs away for the longest stretch of her life since she starting playing at age 8. When she came back to her home in Phoenix, "I was actually excited to get back to work again, to practice and make my swing better."
Her main ally in that project has been Peter Kostis, a well-known teacher and CBS broadcaster who has been her coach for more than two years.
"When I was originally approached to see if I'd work with her, her reputation was one of not wanting to work hard at the game," Kostis said this week. "I was gun-shy. I met her and her father and I gave her one lesson. The book on her was accurate. But the biggest change in her has been her work ethic. It now rivals anyone out there, including Annika. She works out, she practices daily. I'm really proud of her.
"I've helped her with technique, but success is the greatest form of motivation. I have this philosophy that talent always beats lesser talent. That's what she did as a junior and in college. But when talent meets talent with technique, talent gets its rear end kicked. That's what happened early in her career. She had to face to the reality that she really needed to work to maximize her talent."
The results of those efforts were in evidence last season, when Park won the prestigious Michelob Light event at Kingsmill in Williamsburg, making a 20-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to prevail by a shot. More significantly, she had 19 top-10 finishes, and 46 of her 92 competitive rounds were in the sixties, tying an LPGA record. She also had the second-lowest LPGA scoring average in 2003, and was five short of tying the record for birdies in a single season, with 403, allowing her to finish third on the money list with $1.4 million.
Kostis was particularly proud of her performance in March at the Kraft Nabisco in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Playing in the final group with talented 17-year-old rookie Aree Song, Park had a two-shot lead going into 72nd hole, a reachable par 5. But she was faced with a difficult second shot when her drive on the 485-yard 18th at Mission Hills found the rough.
"She had been having problems with her 7-wood all week," Kostis said. "But she hit a perfect 7-wood [second shot] that day. She laid up short of the green, actually to what had been the weakest part of her game last season, a short wedge shot. She played from one weakness to another, then stuck [her third shot] to six feet."
Song, who had hit the green in two, made a 30-foot eagle putt to put immense pressure on Park, who had to sink her birdie putt to win and avoid a playoff. "Grace got up there and knocked it right in," Kostis said. "It was tremendously fulfilling for her to win that way."
"It's obvious she's become a premium player on our tour," said veteran Heather Daly-Donofrio. "It's not just her level of play, but also the way she carries herself on the golf course. She has this elegance out there, and she still crushes the ball. I think she's a real role model for a lot of the women coming to the tour from Korea."
And Park also has been no shrinking violet in terms of setting her own personal goals.
"Last year, I started speaking out loudly that my goal is to become the number one player," she said. "I said I didn't care if it takes me one year, two years, five years, I'm going to work until I get there."
A year ago, Sorenstam beat Park on the first hole of a playoff at the LPGA Championship.
"The only thing I learned from my experience here last year was that when I get in that situation again, I wasn't going to let go," Park said. "I was going to crave it more, and I was going to be the one that ended up grabbing that trophy."