[PHOTO: NurPhoto]

The most inspiring story in golf last week came 5,600 kilometres away from Royal Liverpool. Jane Park teed it up for the first time in two years on the LPGA Tour at the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, making her first tour appearance since her now 2-year-old daughter, Grace, suffered brain seizures that led Park to become a full-time caretaker.

Park, 36, had her family with her at Midland, Michigan. Pete Godfrey, her husband, is an LPGA caddie who works for Hye Jin Choi but looped for Park last week. Grace also attended the tournament, watching some of the practice-round action and spending time in the LPGA’s daycare. Park’s teammate for the two-player team event, Paula Creamer, also brought her daughter, Hilton, who played with Grace as they became inseparable during the week.

Midland Country Club sold pink hats with “Grace” on them, raising money for the Epilepsy Foundation and the Golf for Her Foundation. Players wore purple ribbons on their hats to support Park as well.

“Overall, it was busy, but at the same time it really filled my heart to be able to do this,” Park said after missing the cut. “If it is my last time [playing on tour], then I am very appreciative for the opportunity to kind of rewrite the ending of my golf career, and I’m thankful for the opportunity to play with Paula.”

Grace’s then undiagnosed seizures occurred in July 2021 during the Ascendant LPGA. Park rushed Grace, then only 10 months old, to a local hospital. Park stepped away from her 15-year tour career to care for Grace, becoming an advocate for disabled people. Park consistently posts to her social-media channels on the challenges Grace, now diagnosed with intractable epilepsy, faces daily.

Teeing it up again on the LPGA was not on Park’s mind until Outlyr, the group that runs the Dow Great Lakes Bay Invitational, asked if she would be open to playing and bringing Grace along. Park played in the first edition of the tournament in 2019 with one of her closest friends, Tiffany Joh. However, Joh couldn’t play this week, as she’s now an associate head coach of the University of Southern California program.

Expectations for the tournament, which Park acknowledged as probably her last career LPGA start, were understandably low. On the No Laying Up Podcast, Park shared she had played eight holes of golf over the two years since leaving the tour. She didn’t warm up on the range before practice rounds, trying to conserve her energy for the week. Park’s goals, instead of being primarily score-related, were to try and be as present as possible during the potential swansong of her playing career.

“I have definitely learned to live life in moments and not take anything for granted,” Park said in her pre-tournament press conference. “The fact that we’re here, the fact that I get to play with an amazing partner and raise awareness for epilepsy and disability.”

What followed were two days of highlights mostly away from the duo’s on-course 75-67 performance. Numerous fans walked the course supporting with their “Grace” hats. Park shared photos of her daughter beaming with laughter. During a second-round weather delay, Creamer and Park went to see their kids, with Park capturing a video of Hilton ending up on top of Grace in a ball pit as both smiled from ear to ear.

“Any time they’ve seen each other, Hilton just gravitates towards Grace,” said Creamer, who has been friends with Park since their junior golf days two decades ago. “It’s really amazing.”

Creamer explained the time with Park was some of the most fun she has had in a long time on the LPGA. Creamer also witnessed Park’s rally at the end of their four-ball second round, where Park birdied three of their last four holes to end up at three-under for the day. Creamer teared up on the 18th, understanding it might be goodbye for Park.

“I would play with you in a heartbeat next year if you will take me,” Creamer said to Park. “Please stop saying this is your last one. I’m not ready for it yet.”

Happy with accomplishing her goal of shooting under par for the day, Park turned to her other purpose of playing for the week to wrap up her media availability. Park explained the need for advocacy for disabled people, noting, for example, that someone with a seizure isn’t allowed to drive for six months, impacting one in 26 people diagnosed with epilepsy’s ability to work. It is a world Park did not find herself in by choice, acknowledging how unaware she was of these issues until they impacted Grace. But now, Park is using her voice to champion what the disabled community needs.

“It’s my honour to share Grace’s story because I feel like so many people and so many children with the same disease and disabilities that go unheard and to have a sort of platform to sing praise to her story is an honour,” Park said. “It’s really an honour for me honestly every day to be her mum is the best thing.”