Grace Park has been looking forward to the Safeway International since last year, when the former Arizona State All-American tied for third on her way to a breakthrough season on the LPGA.
So imagine her mood Monday when a recurring back problem flared up and Park was forced to withdraw from the Cheerios Pro -Am at Superstition Mountain Golf and Country Club. Not necessarily a good omen for her chances later this week in the $1.4 million tournament, but you would never know it from talking to the effervescent "hometown girl."
"Yes, that’s what I call myself," the former Horizon High School standout said with a laugh. "I wouldn’t want to miss this tournament because I have so many fans here who follow me. . . . The only place where there might be more is when I go home to Korea. I guess it’s a little more crazy over there."
That Park could laugh after undergoing acupuncture therapy Monday afternoon was a good thing. Not everyone can be so accommodating after being stuck with needles.
"It’s pain that involves tightness, uncomfortableness . . . and all of those bad things," she said. "My back has been an issue for 10 years, and the problem tends to come and go.
"Structurally, it’s OK. It’s really more of a muscle thing. I like to tell myself I have (the back problem) because I played too much golf at too young of an age. That’s basically the way I deal with it. . . . Fortunately, (the back) is starting to feel a little better thanks to (the acupuncture)."
Park had spent the offseason getting toned up for the 2005 season, and there was no problem physically at the season-opening SBS Open in Hawaii.
"Hawaii was just one of those weeks where I couldn’t get anything going," she said of her tie for 27th place. "But the first day in Mexico (the MasterCard Classic) — on my (26th) birthday, no less — I hurt the back but decided to keep playing.
"I probably should have (withdrawn), but the scores were all so high, I decided if I could just hang in there, I’d probably get a pretty good finish."
That turned out to be the case, as Park ended up in a tie for 16th. That she could play at that level with pain is a tribute to just how good "Amazing Grace" has become.
Great expectations always have followed Park. She owned the Arizona high school ranks, first at Phoenix Xavier and then at Horizon. In between winning three individual state championships, she also earned American Junior Golf Association player of the year honors in 1994 and ’96. As a freshman at ASU, she helped her team capture the 1998 NCAA championship.
But after her sophomore season with the Sun Devils, Park turned pro. Even though she managed to win a tournament in each of her first four seasons on the LPGA, some felt she had underachieved.
"I just played dumb, and I didn’t work hard enough," she said of those early efforts on the LPGA. "Now, I feel like I’m more mature, more confident and a lot more patient.
"I still get upset at myself at times, but now I know that I can also trust myself."
That was the case in 2004, as she started out with a tie for second in Tucson and the tie for third in the Safeway International, which was won by Annika Sorenstam.
The following week, Park struck in a big way, making the Kraft Nabisco her first major championship. Later in the season, she also won the CJ Nine Bridges Classic on her way to finishing second on the money list with a career-best $1,525,471. She also captured the coveted Vare Trophy for low-stroke average (69.99).
"That’s my goal this year," said Park, who was born in Seoul but has lived in the U.S. since she was 11. "To defend all my titles, and add a couple more wins."
The Safeway International is a big part of that goal. Besides last year’s fine showing, she was the runner-up here in 2003, when Se Ri Pak beat her with a remarkable finish at Moon Valley Country Club.
"Oh yes, Se Ri hit it in the water on the 17th, and made a 40-footer to save par. Then we both birdied the last hole, and she ended up winning by one (shot)," Park said with a sigh. "But one of these years. . . ."
Even though the competition continues to rise with the arrival of youngsters like Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Brittany Lincicome and the Song sisters, Aree and Naree, Park remains one of the heavy favorites on the LPGA week in and week out.
"(The LPGA) is just better, more global, younger, and prettier than it’s ever been," Park said, once again laughing at her choice of words. "Me? I’m just another year older and, hopefully, a little wiser."
Park plays it coy when asked to compare her game against these long-hitting divas like Wie and Creamer, who are quickly changing the women’s game much like Tiger Woods changed the men’s.
"I guess I’m just average (off the tee) these days," she said, knowing full well she finished fourth in driving distance last year (267.9 yards). "I used to be long, but everybody else has caught up to me."
Catching up with Park this week will be more of a challenge, chiefly because "I love Superstition Mountain, and those pure, fast greens."
If the hometown girl can get a reprieve from the ailing back — who knows? — maybe she’ll make the Safeway International her seventh career win.