How a star is born

Moving to Florida 12 years ago has paid off for Park In-bee, who will make history today if she wins the Evian Championship

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 September, 2013, 3:26am


Park In-bee was 10 when she rose from her bed in the middle of the night in Seoul to watch her South Korean compatriot Pak Se-ri win the 1998 US Women's Open on television.

Three years later, Park, her sister, In-ah, and their mother, Sung, packed up and moved to the United States while their father, Gun-gyu, stayed home to run his business. The Parks settled in Mount Dora, a suburb north of Orlando, Florida, with fewer than 13,000 residents, where the girls went to school and learned English.

In-bee had just turned 13 and was budding as a golfer in 2001. In-ah was starting to play at 11. They were enrolled in a golf academy for South Koreans run by Charlie Yoo at Black Bear Golf Club in nearby Eustis. In-bee progressed quickly.

"When she won the 2002 US Girls' Junior championship and came back home to Mount Dora, I had her autograph some golf balls for me," said David Reed, whose wife, Jeannie, was Park's English teacher and golf coach at Christian Home and Bible School, a private school with 550 students.

"I said, 'In-bee, you know this is just the beginning, don't you'?" he said. "She just smiled."

After 21/2 years in Mount Dora, the Park family moved to Las Vegas, where In-bee began fine-tuning her game at the Butch Harmon School of Golf. She turned professional at 17, posting 11 top-10 finishes on the 2006 Futures Tour (now the Symetra Tour).

"I don't want to go to the LPGA Tour and just make cuts and never win," she said in 2006, when she finished No 3 among the Futures Tour's money winners and qualified for the LPGA Tour. "I want to be the best player in the world someday."

Park's career took another leap in 2008 when, at 19, she won the US Women's Open, her first victory as a professional. Now 25, she is the world's top-ranked female player.

This year, Park won the tour's first three majors - the Kraft Nabisco, the LPGA Championship and the US Women's Open - then tied for 42nd in the British Open. If she wins the Evian Championship today in France, she will become the first LPGA player with four major tournament victories in a calendar year.

That looked like a tall order as Park sat nine shots off the pace after the opening round of a tournament reduced to three rounds because Thursday's play was washed out.

I don't want to go to the LPGA Tour and just make cuts and never win. I want to be the best player in the world someday.
Park In-Bee, in 2006

Yet Park is still remembered for her youthful dedication to the game at Black Bear Golf Club, where she, her sister and four South Korean boys took lessons from Yoo and practised six days a week.

"From the pro shop, I could see the range," said Rafe Kirian, who was Black Bear's pro shop manager at the time. "And every time I looked out there, In-bee was either on the range or on the putting green. She hit close to a thousand balls a day, and chipped and putted for two to three hours. It was very businesslike, with the same beautiful rhythm and swing tempo that she still has."

A typical day for young In-bee would be to go to school, then head to Black Bear and practise with Yoo and her school team until dark. Jeannie Reed tutored the Park girls in English at their home several nights a week.

"In-bee had lots of golf trophies at their house," Reed said, "but she downplayed it and called them 'pieces of glass'. She was more proud of showing me her room, her puppy or sharing her mom's Korean food."

Kirian said he put up a large sign in the Black Bear pro shop after Park won the 2002 US Girls' Junior that read, "We're proud of you, In-bee!" When she walked into the clubhouse and saw the sign, he said, she blushed and hugged him as he put a Black Bear Golf Club cap on her head.

"I met great people there and got great energy from them, which helped a lot," Park said recently.

In the fall of 2003, the Park sisters helped their school advance to the state high school golf championship for the first time. When the team finished third, In-bee was disappointed but the rest of the squad was ecstatic, Reed said.

"We wouldn't have been there if it weren't for In-bee," said Lauren Brown Smith, who was also on the team. "But she never made us feel bad for not being golf all-stars."

Another former teammate, Sara Hill, said: "We took the game seriously, but we also knew we weren't going to play college golf or go on to the LPGA Tour."

"In-bee showed us complete and total dedication, and she worked her butt off to get where she is now," added Hill, the new girls' golf coach at Christian Home and Bible School. "She didn't just ride her talent."

Hill and Smith were able to coax some uncharacteristic silliness from Park after the state championship. For a team photograph, the girls formed a pyramid, with In-bee and In-ah laughing on the bottom.

The day after the state championship, Hill began basketball practice and Smith started cheerleading. In-bee and In-ah returned to their routine on the range at Black Bear.

Reed recalled driving back from the next year's state tournament with the Park sisters in her car. The girls enjoyed contemporary Christian music, she said, and sang along with a CD.

Reed once invited the Park sisters to her house to help make Christmas cookies. She remembered that they were happy and singing, with flour on their faces.

"When I took them home, they ran through the front door giggling, with cookies for their mother," Reed said. "I remember she smiled and said, 'You've turned them into American girls'!"

By then, Park's prowess as a golfer had received national attention and put a spotlight on Christian Home and Bible.

"In-bee is the biggest star to come out of this school," said James Moore, the school's president. "Other students knew who the sisters were and hoped they would do great things with their talent."

Although Park keeps in touch with the Reeds by e-mail, there is no outward sign that she ever attended Christian Home and Bible School or played at Black Bear Golf Club. The course has changed management several times, and the association with Park has been lost except for Kirian's memories.

Park has not been back to Mount Dora, but people there are cheering her quest to make LPGA history. "We feel honoured that In-bee was in our lives, and we'll never forget her," said Reed, who retired in July. "Our time with her was a lot of fun."

The New York Times