Pak's success spurs burgeoning pack
By BETH ANN BALDRY
Not many people can say they’ve sparked a revolution, given women in a largely patriarchal society the chance to glorify their country, earn millions of dollars and change the face of a sport.
It’s one thing to finish first. It’s quite another to be the first.
Se Ri Pak can say all those things with her megawatt smile. She’s the reason 45 Koreans are on the LPGA and countless more are swatting balls on the stacked ranges of South Korea.
Pak, 30, came to the U.S. in 1997 when she was “just a baby.” In only seven years on tour, she earned enough points (27) for the LPGA Hall of Fame and officially qualified for the shrine
in June, the first South Korean to do so, after hitting her 10-year anniversary at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship.
In some ways, Pak’s decade on tour seems like a lifetime because of the way she reinvented herself and the tour in such a short span. At an LPGA Hall of Fame Celebration at Orlando’s Ritz Carlton Sept. 21, Pak looked like a blushing bride in her elegant white traditional Korean gown. At the end of her mostly extemporaneous speech (in English), Pak said: “It’s an amazing moment. I’ve been waiting for this moment for 15 years.”
Then she started to cry.
As the evening wore on, Pak changed into a less-formal brown ensemble and hit the dance floor with her boyfriend and a dozen or so Korean players who came to pay tribute to their mentor and friend. Pak looked nothing like the woman with cropped hair and baggy collared shirts who in 1998 strung together the most impressive LPGA rookie season since Nancy Lopez in 1978 with four victories, including two major championships. On this night, she looked more movie star than world-class athlete. More important, she looked happy.
“She can feel the space,” said Pak’s father, Joon Chul, who isn’t as tough on his daughter as he once was. “Even though she didn’t play well, she can say, ‘I’m enjoying this game.’ “
Pak often says at first glance golf “seemed like a boring sport.” Her father added a teenage Pak to his weekend money games to push her along. “I hate to lose my own money,” Pak said.
“I started liking (the game) because I started winning.”
Pak won 30 tournaments as an amateur and six KLPGA events from 1996-97.
Karrie Webb first played against her as an amateur but recalls getting a taste of how big Pak was becoming in Korea at the 1997 Samsung World Championship in Seoul. While the rest of the field took an hourlong bus ride to the course every day, Pak was chauffeured in a limousine.
“We were all like, ‘Who is this girl?’ “ Webb said. “Obviously it was just the beginning.”
To Pak’s longtime agent, IMG’s Jay Burton, the incident that most illustrated Pak’s exploding fame came at a military checkpoint in South Korea. As the presidential-like caravan of cars proceeded through a security zone, guards soon realized Pak was the VIP.
“It was absolutely mind-blowing to see (the reaction of) these guys,” Burton said. “It would be like the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace – those guys who can’t even break a smile – going crazy.”
Inbee Park was a pianist for several years while growing up in Seoul. That changed in 1998, when the 12-year-old and her father watched on television as Pak defeated amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn in a 20-hole U.S. Open playoff at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin.
“When she won the U.S. Open in 1998, that’s when I first picked up a club,” said Park, a former U.S. Girls’ Junior champion and now an LPGA rookie. “It’s pretty much because of Se Ri that I started.”
The attention on Pak has died down in recent years as the LPGA overflows with Korean talent. While plenty of Korean players have won LPGA events in the last decade, none has come close to making a Pak-like impact. Perhaps that’s why Korean players still pay such close attention to Pak’s every move. Her caddie, T.J. Jones, said he often notices that when his boss starts working on a new practice drill, several days later five or six Korean players are emulating her on the range.
“They might not have a clue of what that drill does, and they want to do it,” Jones said. “The girls treat Se Ri with so much respect it’s unbelievable.”
If there’s one downfall of getting so good so fast, it’s figuring out what to do next. Webb, a 2005 inductee, said that after Pak earned enough points for the Hall of Fame, they spoke about the difficulties of setting new goals. It’s hard to keep climbing when you’ve already reached the pinnacle.
Wavering motivation combined with a host of injuries led to extended time off for Pak in 2005. When she returned to the game in ‘06, there was an obvious change in her demeanor. Not to mention her play.
“I think she might be just enjoying golf a little bit more,” Webb said. “I don’t think she carries the weight of Korea on her anymore.”
It was Webb who fell to Pak in a playoff at the ‘06 McDonald’s LPGA Championship. Pak hit her approach shot on the first playoff hole within inches of the cup, setting up her first major championship title since ‘02.
“I think about it nearly every day, the way in which I won that tournament and the feelings and sensations that I experienced in that last round,” Pak said. “It’s a very special memory for me and one that I don’t know that I could ever outdo.”
With the Hall of Fame wrapped up and a bevy of young girls eager to follow her lead, Pak has turned her attention to another aspiration: the LPGA career grand slam. All that’s missing on her resume is the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
At 30, it seems as if Pak has all the time in the world to complete her grand plan. Both she and her father, however, think retirement likely will come in five years. They’re already looking for a site in Korea to build a golf academy together.
A place where Pak can continue the revolution.