RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. — Annie Park crunched numbers ahead of the weekend at the JTBC Classic, the final tournament before the Chevron Championship, figuring out where she needed to finish to qualify for the first major of the year.
Park’s calculations proved to be perfect after she shot a final-round 68 on Sunday, her lowest total of the year. With that result, she ended up 80th on the CME list and became the last player to make it into the Chevron Championship field.
Sunday’s round was the first Park enjoyed since the 2019 Solheim Cup. The T23 finish was her best since she took a two-month mental health break in the middle of the 2021 season to address her anxieties and doubts about her future in golf.
“I was just at a point where I was so confused about everything and a lot of stuff where I had trouble breathing,” she said. “I felt like I had so much on my plate, I didn’t know how to empty it.”
During her fifth year on the LPGA Tour in 2021, Park felt her habits beginning to catch up to her. Her body started to cry out in response to the stress accumulated from suppressing her emotions. She took medication for three months during the year, treating ulcers and acid reflux in her stomach. Park found she would sob uncontrollably with seemingly no trigger, even when she was driving. Not knowing what was causing her pain only added to the anxiety of playing.
“I don’t want to be on the golf course and bawling my eyes out of nowhere,” Park said.
After the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational in the middle of July, Park shut it down, passing on five tournaments and returning at the end of September with four events left on the LPGA calendar.
The first tournament she withdrew from was the Evian Championship, the fourth major of the season in France.
“Why should I travel across the world when I don’t want to be there and be miserable for a week? I don’t want to do that,” she said. “Give that spot to someone who actually really wants to be there and wants to have the experience of it.”
Major championships are worth more points in the CME standings, the currency the LPGA uses to determine a player’s tour status for the next season. With Park’s guaranteed status expiring at the end of the 2021 season, she had to play her way into the top 100 to maintain her card and avoid going to Q-Series, the LPGA’s qualifying school.
She planned to give it her best shot, but even if she missed the mark, Park was at peace with the outcome.
“My ranking does not justify Annie Park,” she explained, “because outside of the golf course, I’m a human being. I’m still a friend, still a daughter to someone.”
The time she spent away from the sport allowed her to explore other passions. Park worked on ceramics, discovered her love of dance, listened to music and enjoyed cycling and working out. Instead of reading up on flight deals for LPGA travel, Park dove into books and articles at her Dallas home. She read one about crying and how the release of serotonin can lead to positive health effects, which resonated with the 26-year-old after she felt she had bottled up her emotions for years.
“It’s OK to be introspective once in a while [and ask yourself], ‘What are you doing? What are you going through? Are you OK?’ That’s a question I never asked myself for the last couple of years,” she said.
When the tour returned to the United States, Park rejoined the competition at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship following the Cambia Portland Classic in late September. People asked her if she was recovering from an injury that led to the break.
“There’s a lot of eyes watching us, and sometimes people have high expectations of you, and if you don’t meet them, you get disappointed,” Park said. “I think that eventually creeps into you judging yourself, expecting too much of yourself, expecting that you need to do this, you have to succeed, you have to win this event, or if you don’t, the world is ending.”
The most important lesson she learned during the two months away was to trust her intuition rather than ignore it. With that guiding her thinking, the USC alum played just well enough in her final four events of 2021 to eke into 98th place on the CME list and maintain her tour card. She wasn’t, however, guaranteed a start at the Chevron Championship, with only the top 80 on the CME leaderboard in 2021 earning entry into this year’s first major tournament.
Park focused on improving her game through the first tournaments of the 2022 season. She worked through mechanical changes during her two LPGA starts in January and early February before taking an eight-week break ahead of the JTBC Classic last weekend. Park retooled her bag, adding a new Scotty Cameron putter. She even got a manicure with a smiley-faced design on her fingernail a couple of weeks before the JTBC Classic, symbolizing the joy she’s rediscovered in golf.
“I think I have that fire again, which I just kind of lost during COVID,” Park said. “I think that fire gives me that thrill of being out on the golf course again. I think that was huge last week, to feel that again.”
Now, ahead of her sixth career start at the Chevron Championship, she has the tools to balance her career and her personal life. And at last, she feels comfortable sharing her story.
“[I wanted to] let other people know they’re not alone,” Park said. “I think that’s the biggest thing that we always forget, is we always think we’re alone. There is a community that goes through it, goes through similar things.
“We’re here to support each other.”
Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.