You could say that Ji-Eun Park has been a star in the making
since she was 12. That was when she moved from Seoul to Hawaii
to work on her game and her English. That was also when her
father, Soo Nam, rechristened her Grace because Ji-Eun was too
hard for her American teachers to pronounce. Soo Nam thought
the new name evoked fluidity and rhythm and a certain blonde
movie star who became a princess. Ji-Eun thought she had been
given the same name as all of the local grandmothers. But as
she has in so much of her golf-centered life, she went along
like a dutiful daughter, and as the years have gone on and her
golf titles have multiplied, she has come to embrace the name,
and its connotations.
Now, after three seasons on the LPGA tour, during which the
24-year-old has grown up--and gotten fed up--Park finally is ready
to make her move. She has a new swing coach (Peter Kostis) and a
new caddie (Dave Brooker) to help her rein in her freewheeling
game. She has a new management company (Gaylord Sports) and her
first equipment contract (Nike) to position her as a crossover
star. Most important, she has a new attitude. "My first couple of
years on tour, I didn't work hard, and I got what I deserved,"
she says. "My heart wasn't in it, and I wasn't happy. Now I'm
ready to get to work."
Everything seems to be in harmony for Park, and her timing is
impeccable. Two weeks after signing her multiyear deal with Nike,
Park tied for fourth in the Welch's/Fry's Championship, the LPGA
season opener. She followed that with a second at the Safeway
Ping, barely losing to friend and fellow Korean Se Ri Pak in a
riveting one-on-one duel. Park never backed down, birdieing six
of the final ten holes, only to come up a shot short, at 22 under
Step outside the competitive arena, and what you see is an
MTV-generation golfer who rolls a shiny black Lexus GS430 that
starts with a turn of a key on her Prada key chain, a perfect
accessory to a cellphone that has a pink pom-pom hanging from it.
As she practices on the putting green at Grayhawk Golf Club, near
the Phoenix home that she shares with her parents, Park plugs in
her portable CD player and strokes ball after ball. The music is
Korean; the look is cool and classic. She's wearing a white,
sleeveless, collarless Nike golf shirt and black capri pants, her
hair is neatly pulled back and a small round diamond hangs from
each ear. Her father was right; she does call to mind Grace Kelly
with a putter. If there were such a thing as a marketing asset
sheet, Park's would run long. Beautiful skin? Check. Great bone
structure? Check. Youth? Check. Size 4? Check. Killer swing?
Check. Style? Check. On top of all that, she enjoys being a girl.
"I can't help liking myself all dolled up," she says with a coy
Watch her at home, walking around barefoot, slurping up homemade
noodles and seaweed soup, and what you see is a loving daughter.
She watches Korean soap operas. As is common in Korean culture,
she plans to live with her parents until she gets married. She is
intensely proud of her heritage--she takes great pains to explain
cultural differences--and plans to retire in Korea and have a
family. "I've become so Koreanized in the last few years. The
older I get, the more traditional and conservative I become,"
Park is, however, embarrassed by the family's old-fashioned home
decor. "Nothing about it is me," she says. Nothing except the
zillion trophies, the Haagen-Dazs in the freezer, the closet
heavy on purses and designer shoes, and her new pink Louis
Vuitton bag--this year's birthday present from her mother, Jin-Ae.
Park says that there used to be many more shoes and purses, but
she recently sent several boxes back to her parents' place in
Korea in an effort to streamline. "I promised myself I wouldn't
get any more," she says, laughing. "That lasted three days."
Though Park seems O.K. with the contradictions inherent in being
a cross-cultural material girl/traditional daughter, that peace
has not come easily. She was introduced to golf at age 10, though
she's not sure on which course--her parents belong to nine country
clubs in Korea. Park does remember the day her competitive fire
was first sparked. She was tagging along for a round with her
mother, a single-digit handicapper, and a friend of Jin-Ae's.
Grace shot a 127, but she was determined to beat her mom's
friend. After a month of practice she was shooting in the low
90s. At 11 she won her first tournament. At 12 she moved to
Hawaii to live with her aunt, Jin-Hya Pan. (Grace's older sister,
Lisa, was already living there, receiving asthma treatments.)
Grace's first big victory was the 1991 Optimist Junior World, in
San Diego, when she was 12, and she soon developed a national
"The first time I saw Grace was at the U.S. Girls' Junior," says
Linda Vollstedt, Park's former coach at Arizona State. "She was
this really young woman killing her drives easily 50 yards past
everybody else. I couldn't figure out why I didn't know who she
was, because I was aware of all the top juniors. The answer, of
course, was that she was only 13."
For high school, Park's parents decided to send her to a private
school in Phoenix, Xavier, that had a great golf team. (Soo Nam
and Jin-Ae split time between Seoul and Phoenix.) They provided a
house near the school for their daughter and a live-in chaperone,
who cooked for Grace and drove her wherever she needed to go. "I
became very Americanized in high school," Park says. "I didn't go
back home for four years. I had no Korean friends." What followed
on the golf course was an amazing string of victories. At 17 Park
won 14 of the 16 tournaments she played in, including 11 in a
row. Off the course it was a different story. "I was hating my
life so much," she says. "I put so much pressure on myself. I had
to get good grades. I had to win every tournament. I wanted to be
the perfect teenager."
Park eased up on herself at Arizona State. She enjoyed being a
college student, hanging out at an apartment she had decorated
with purchases from Target and making a handful of Korean
friends. But by the end of her sophomore year she had outgrown
college golf. "There weren't any challenges left for her," says
Vollstedt. Park turned pro after winning the 1999 NCAA individual
title and headed to the Futures tour in an effort to avoid Q
school. She stormed to victory in five of her first nine starts,
and at 20 she was a fully exempt LPGA tour player.
At that point it looked as if Park's star would be a supernova.
Instead, she imploded. "I was determined to get my card, but by
the time I got to the LPGA, I was burned out," she says. "I felt
guilty when I was off the course, but I was miserable when I was
on it. I was looking for spots on the calendar when I would have
time off." Not even her cashmere travel blanket could comfort her.
It would be easy to conclude that Park had been pushed too hard
for too long. After all, hadn't Park's father, a successful
restaurateur, left others to monitor his steakhouses in Korea so
he could manage every aspect of Grace's career? She doesn't see
it that way. "For 10 years my dad traveled to almost every
tournament I played in," Park says. "In our culture parents do
everything to help their kids succeed." Various news accounts
through the years suggested that Soo Nam's constant presence
slowed Park's development, a notion that still upsets her.
"He was one of the best dads I've ever seen," says Vollstedt. "A
lot of people misinterpreted what he was because he was always
there, but he was always there with a smile and encouragement.
They have a wonderful relationship."
Though Park's first LPGA season was a disappointment by her
reckoning, it was by no means a failure. She won her first
tournament and earned close to $430,000, barely losing the Rookie
of the Year award to Dorothy Delasin. Along the way she decided
to go Hollywood, signing with Mike Ovitz's new management
company, AMG Sports. But after 11 months and only one more
victory, Park's marketing potential was limited, and she wasn't
interested in the offers that AMG brought to the table. Park
declines to discuss the details, but press reports had her
turning down two equipment companies because the money was
insufficient. It became clear that if Park wanted to be
compensated like a star, she would need more than a pretty smile.
"Everything would've been fine if I had played well, but I played
horribly," says Park.
Last season Park started strong, with seven top tens in the first
nine events, and ended on a high note in Narita, Japan, where she
won the Cisco World Ladies' Match Play. In between, she hooked up
with Kostis, who also teaches a handful of PGA Tour players.
"Grace's challenges are more mental than physical," says Kostis.
"She was brought up to believe a technically perfect swing is the
answer to all ills, so sometimes she worries too much about a
negative outcome. I'm not surprised she won the match play
because she had some freedom from worrying about a bad shot." At
year's end Park had 12 top 10 finishes and was sixth on the money
list, with $861,943.
The timing of her resurgence was perfect. Late last year Nike was
looking for a public face for its women's golf apparel, as well
as for the new line of equipment that will be unveiled later this
year. "Grace is a household name in Korea," says Kel Devlin,
global sports marketing director at Nike. "When the Korean media
write about an athlete, they write the athlete's name and then
next to it the name of the company she's associated with in
parentheses. So when it says Annika Sorenstam, it says Callaway
in parentheses after it."
For a company counting on growth in the Asian market, Park could
be parentheses well purchased. "She's going to look great in the
product, and she has a bit of an edge to her," says Devlin. For
Park, Nike's slick imprimatur is a good way to separate herself
from the pack--and we're not just talking about Se Ri. There are
20 Koreans on the LPGA tour this season, but Park will be by far
the most high-profile, at least during commercial breaks. In
February, Park geared up for the 2003 season by spending two days
at Nike headquarters in Beaverton, Ore., scrutinizing shoes and
apparel, and two more days in Fort Worth, Texas, tinkering with
Before those sessions with her new corporate family, Park spent
seven weeks in Korea with her parents. It was the longest period
of time she had been away from golf since she was 12. The low-key
time--breakfast with mom, hanging out with friends, shopping--seems
to have paid off. Returning to Phoenix recharged, she embarked on
a six-days-a-week training regimen that included two hours in the
gym and six or more hours at the course.
One sure sign that Park was ready to play was that on the eve of
the new season she was complaining that she wasn't ready. "It was
the same in college," says Vollstedt. "Right before a big
tournament she would start saying, 'I'm not ready, I don't feel
comfortable.' Grace thrives on competition. Her best game is
always when she's in the arena. I never worried about her play at
practice because she was always 10 times better in competition."
Vollstedt visited her old player in the days before the LPGA
season opener, and she could see that Park was, in fact, totally
prepared. "She's really focused," said Vollstedt. "She's
comfortable with who she is. You can see it."
So here's Park, all style and grace and finally showing some true
grit. "I have so much left to do," she says. "I didn't set goals
my first three years. Maybe that's why I didn't have anything to
look forward to." Her goals for this year, besides a Rodeo Drive
shopping spree, are improving her English (which is excellent as
is), becoming a more consistent player, winning multiple
tournaments and finishing among the top three on the money list.
Longer-term, she plans to be the No. 1 golfer in the world. "I'm
going to be, just not yet," she says. "It's going to take a few
Park will chase those goals with her parents, and now Nike,
cheering loudly from the sidelines. If she can churn out
victories, she may yet produce a Yao-like wow and become a
crossover star with a ponytail on top. "I expect so much out of
life," Park says, laughing. "I want to be rich and famous. I want
to find my mate. I want everything!" If only the sharpies at Nike
could've have frozen that moment--the face, the laughter and the
sincerity--it would've made the perfect commercial, with a swoosh
at the end of it, of course.
THREE COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN IMAGE MAKING Park, who is Nike's new It girl, recently went through four days of orientation with the company, including a computer analysis of how her swing affects the fit of her clothes.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY RICH FRISHMAN CLOTHES CALL An unabashed lover of fashion, Park has helped define the development of her on-course look.
COLOR PHOTO: DARREN CARROLL [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: PAUL CONNORS/AP TOOL TIME Seventh on tour in driving distance last year, Park is now looking to improve her putting, which is where Nike club designers like David Franklin come in.
COLOR PHOTO: COURTESY OF NIKE GOLF [See caption above]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: TODD BIGELOW/AURORA (2) DADDY'S GIRL Park's father was a constant presence earlier in her career, but only Jin-Ae (left) was on hand last week as Grace finished 25th at the Office Depot.
Ji-Eun was renamed Grace by her father. He was thinking of
fluidity, rhythm and a movie star who became a princess.
"My first couple of years my heart wasn't in it, and I got what I
deserved," says Park. "Now I'm ready to get to work."
"My dad traveled to every tournament," says Park. "In our culture
parents do everything to help their kids succeed."