Everybody told Soo-Nam Park the same thing, "Mr. Park, you're crazy. How could you push your daughter so hard to play golf?"
In halting English, Park's reply was always the same: "All I ever want was the best for my daughter."
Park, a wealthy Korean restaurateur, got just that. His 15-year-old daughter, Grace Ji-Eun, winner of the American Junior Golf Association's Female Player of the Year award, is considered the country's best junior girl golfer. But the manner in which she achieved success raises a familiar question: Is she the latest athletic prodigy whose adolescence has been wrecked by overzealous parents?
Born in Seoul, Ji-Eun was eight when she began hitting balls with her golf-fanatic parents. A year later, in 1989, while on an extended vacation with her family in Hawaii, she took daily lessons from a teaching pro, and her scoring average dropped from 120 to 90. When she was 11, she was told by her father an hour after arriving in Hawaii for another vacation that she would be staying in Honolulu for good to pursue a golf career.
The plans had been made behind her back. Her new American name would be Grace; she would stay with her aunt and older sister, who already lived in Honolulu; and the rest of her belongings would be shipped. Never mind that she didn't speak a word of English. "I was shocked because then I hated golf," says Grace, who picked up English quickly. "But I was mostly happy being moved because I was getting away from my parents' lecturing."
In Hawaii, Grace began to enjoy golf again and excelled in national tournaments. But traveling back and forth to the U.S. mainland a dozen times a year was taxing. So in 1993, when Grace was 13, Park moved her to Phoenix. Again she wasn't consulted.
He bought a luxurious house, found legal guardians for her, joined Moon Valley Country Club so she would have a place to practice and enrolled her at Xavier Prep, an all-girl golf powerhouse. Park spends about half the year in America with his daughter. His wife, Jin-Ae, spends even less time stateside because she has to remain in Seoul with Grace's 13-year-old brother, Young-Sik. "I was very worried when I first heard about Grace," says Sister Lynn Winsor, Xavier's golf coach and athletic director. "So many things could have gone wrong."
But so far, according to Winsor, none have. As proof, she offers a pile of photographs. "Here's Gracie as a gangster at a costume party," she says. "Here she is at a team cookout. Here, look at her goofing off in the halls. This, I tell you, is a normal high school girl."
Normal? Normal girls don't write checks for the mortgage, cable TV, electric and phone bills. Normal girls don't get the master bedroom. Normal girls don't hit a golf ball so far and so straight.
Grace, who possesses youthful exuberance, adult maturity and a 3.4 GPA, is the best proof that she hasn't been robbed of her childhood. "It is pretty strange what I'm doing," she says. "But I want to be the best golfer in the world. I love winning. If it overall wasn't fun, I wouldn't do it."
The best girl golfer in the U.S. is an innocent abroad.