It’s rare to find a child prodigy in sports, but Eileen Park may well fit into that category.
The 12-year-old is one of the premier junior golfers in the province, competing against girls much older and more than holding her own.
Her skill was clearly on display at the provincial U19 championship where 17-year-old Grace Bell of Calgary Glencoe, who is on her way to compete for UBC, needed four extra holes to finally edge the Red Deer youngster.
Eileen, who is heading into Grade 7 at Gateway Christian School, first picked up a club when she was two, while living in Kelowna.
“I followed my dad around and just started shooting balls with plastic clubs,” she said.
By the time she was five she had a coach and was starting to fall in love with the sport.
“Before then I didn’t really like it that much, but I got a coach and he showed me the basics, in fact pretty much everything,” she explained.
As for what she first liked about the sport.
‘When I started to get the ball in the hole,” she said with a laugh.
The Park family moved to Red Deer when Eileen was six and she continued to work on her game at the driving ranges at Alberta Springs, River Bend and Meadowlands. The last two seasons she’s been at the Red Deer Golf and Country Club.
Eileen practices alone but enjoys the competitive side of the game.
“I enjoy playing with other people my age,” she said.
She got into competitive golf at age 6 in a Canadian Junior Golf Association event.
“The first time I played it was mainly for fun.”
She still plays for fun, but has a highly competitive nature, which has taken her to the top more often than not.
Last season she won the provincial U13 championship at Alberta Springs by 19 strokes. The championship, which also includes U15 and U17 divisions, is set once again this year for Alberta Springs on Aug. 23-24.
“I’m glad it’s back there as I know the course and I’m comfortable there.”
This year she’s won all four Maple Leaf Tour events in Alberta in the U15 division. Her closest victory was by three strokes. She also won by eight strokes and 17 strokes twice.
Following her impressive showing at the provincial U19 championship in Carstairs she was named to the Alberta team to compete in the Canadian juniors, which concluded Thursday in Leduc.
“My goal going into the provincials was to make the Alberta team and compete in the Canadians,” she said. “It’s the first time at the Canadian championship and it was exciting.”
One aspect of her game that will continue to improve is distance off the tee.
“I’m a lot smaller (four-foot-11) than most of the girls and being younger I don’t drive as far,” she said.
But she makes up for it with strong fairway play.
“I need to be able to catch up with my second shot and so I use my woods and that’s my strength right now,” she said. “The other girls are usually using irons, but that’s fine.”
Like most younger golfers “I need to work on my putting and short game the most.”
She still works with the same coach she had in Kelowna.
“We got together again this year,” she explained. “He lives in Vancouver and we FaceTime and he comes out once in a while.”
As for what they work on.
“Everything,” she said with a laugh.
Eileen will continue to improve her overall game on the practice tee and in competition.
“I try to play in as many tournaments as I can,” she said.
Her next event is the Canadian Women’s Amateur, which starts Tuesday at the Edmonton Petroleum Club.
Competing at the national level close to home should give her parents an opportunity to watch.
Not so, she says.
“I don’t let my parents watch me,” she laughed. “When I go to an event my dad waits in the car. It takes some pressure off me, although I feel the older girls have more pressure as they’re playing a much smaller, and younger girl who happens to beat them. I think they’re surprised.”
As for her ultimate goal.
The LPGA … I think you have to think that way.”
Looking at her development already that may not be out of the realms of possibility.
Danny Rode is a retired Advocate reporter and member of the Alberta Sports Hall of Fame who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org