She reveled in the obedient flight of her ball, the way the high fade floated in and settled 5 feet from the pin, just the way she imagined the shot.
“I just pured it,” Park said. “I was like, `Wow, I honestly haven’t hit that shot in a long time.’”
That’s what shot making felt like when she won this championship six years ago, what it felt like when she won six LPGA events and was one of the game’s promising young stars. That’s how easy the game felt before the magic left her.
After four long years battling back and hip injuries, of enduring more debilitating mental fatigue, Park says she’s learning to love the game again. She’ll be seeking Sunday to log her first top-10 finish in five seasons.
A six-time LPGA winner, Park turned 31 last month. In many ways, she’s feeling reborn as a player after taking most of last year off to recover from hip surgery and mental injury that’s harder to define.
“Definitely, it was a struggle the last few years,” Park said. “I call it hitting rock bottom.
“I think I was burned out. I’m not ashamed of it.”
Park hasn’t won an event since ’04, when she won the Kraft Nabisco, her first major, and later that year the C.J. Nine Bridges Classic. She disappeared for 10 months after missing the cut at last year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship to recover from the hip surgery.
Park spent last year in her South Korean homeland recovering with family. She talked to her parents about the pressures she felt growing up in the game, how she was playing more out of a sense of duty than a love of the game. She says her time away last year was therapeutic.
“Not touching clubs for 10 months was great,” Park said. “It was the best thing I could have done for myself.”
Park missed the cut last week in her first start in 12 months, but she found new motivation in her return.
“When I was younger, playing competitive rounds were just natural to me,” Park said. “I didn’t really think about it, I didn’t really want it. I just did it out of habit almost since I was 10, 11 years old. After losing that for a few years, I started having that craving again, that hunger, really missing what I had. I really think I took it for granted, but wanting it and loving the game of golf definitely helps.”
Park said she was inspired by the way the fans embraced their former champ.
“They love her here,” said Brian Funk, her caddie.
They marveled at the return of her shot making, too.
“Today was critical for Grace,” Funk said. “She knows, more so, that it’s still there.”
Funk marveled as much as Park at the high fade she hit in attacking the fifth pin.
“Shots that remind her of the old days are important,” Funk said.
They’re important because they remind her of the confidence she played with at the height of her powers.
“I’m feeling very, very positive,” Park said. “I feel like my game is right there. I’ve always been a great player, that never went away. I lost it a little, bit but I feel like I can get it back.”