2004: Chasing a legend
Wednesday, September 28, 2011
By Jay A. Coffin
Se Ri Pak pulled into the parking lot at the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in her black Mercedes SUV, checked in at the pro shop, then wandered to the practice range to warm up before beginning a round with swing coach Tom Creavy. On this overcast February morning, a few merry souls stopped Pak to exchange pleasantries, but for the most part, she was unnoticed.
Same story, different day. For a majority of Pak’s six-year LPGA career, her achievements have been overlooked outside her home country, first playing second fiddle to Karrie Webb and more recently to Annika Sorenstam.
At 26, Pak’s 21 career victories are six more than Meg Mallon’s 15 and eight more than Rosie Jones’ 13. Her four major championships are as many as Nancy Lopez (three) and Beth Daniel (one) combined. Only the Kraft Nabisco Championship stands in the way of Pak capturing the career Grand Slam. Only one point stands in the way of her entrance into the LPGA Hall of Fame.
Those close to the game realize her importance – not the least of which was creating a women’s golf boom in her native Korea.
“Her accomplishments have not been lost on us in terms of what she’s been able to do for the organization,” said LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw, noting that two Korean players were on the LPGA in 1998, Pak’s rookie season, and now there are more than 20. “She’s opened the floodgates from an Asian perspective with television rights fees in Korea, merchandising guarantees and having an event there on a regular basis.
“She has brought about as much, if not more, economic impact to the LPGA than any other player over the last six years. I don’t think any player has done more.”
With each passing year, Pak feels more of that respect. Still, Sorenstam’s shadow always looms.
“Now people recognize me more,” Pak says without a hint of being boastful. “My name is at the top, people know I’m a top player. Those things make me happy.
“At the same time, Annika still gets all the credit. Every week, everywhere it’s questions about Annika. She’s good and I agree with all the credit she gets. But I’m right there, I’m right behind her.”
Sorenstam agrees wholeheartedly.
“I think she’s been overlooked,” Sorenstam said. “She’s not a person who seeks the limelight and she doesn’t get as much credit as she deserves.
“But she’s very, very good. I think the record, if you look at it, speaks for itself. She works really hard, she’s matured and she’s always a contender because she’s so consistent.”
Last year, Pak missed the cut in the season-opening Welch’s/Fry’s Championship, then rattled off three victories and 20 top-10 finishes in the remaining 25 events. She ended the year second in earnings and topped the $1 million mark, both for the third consecutive year. Although Pak clearly has a firm grasp on the No. 2 position behind Sorenstam, she often is lumped into the category with Webb, Juli Inkster and Grace Park of those who are “next best.” In 2003, Pak was 10-6 head-to-head against Inkster, 16-5 against Webb and 14-7-2 against Park.
Colin Cann, Pak’s caddie for the past three years, was on Sorenstam’s bag for five years in the late 1990s when Webb was collecting victories and mowing down scoring records as the No. 1 player. After a brief stint with Park, Cann began looping for Pak and now sees her taking a back seat to Sorenstam, similar to the way Sorenstam was sometimes overlooked because of Webb.
“It’s a bit like the men on the PGA Tour with Tiger,” Cann said. “Se Ri happens to be playing at a time when you’ve got a phenomenon out there, someone who comes along every 30-40 years. If it wasn’t for that, she’d be No. 1. It’s frustrating for her but it also drives her to work much harder.”
Creavy, a former David Leadbetter disciple who is director of instruction at Orlando’s MetroWest Country Club, has worked with Pak for more than three years, and the two have developed a steady, successful working relationship. Since mid-January they have worked together four hours per day, six days per week on all phases of the game. The focus recently has been Pak’s grip, which tends at times to become too weak, resulting in an open clubface at impact.
They worked on stabilizing her lower body more so Pak can get the club in front of her on the way down and through the swing. Creavy says putting, ultimately, is the key to Pak’s success, predicting that she’ll win at least five times this year if she can remain in the top 10 in average putts per round.
“It’s a lot of time to work together but we mix it up so it doesn’t get monotonous,” said Creavy, who also works with Sophie Gustafson. “We keep it fairly simple but detailed enough to the point where she understands why she’s making certain changes. That way, when I’m not on the road with her and she’s not hitting it perfect, she can have a pretty good understanding why and how to figure it out.”
Pak has been trying to figure things out since she burst onto the LPGA scene in 1998 as a shy 20-year-old who won two majors, the McDonald’s LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open. After winning two more events that year, she ran away with the Rolex Rookie of the Year award and finished second on the money list to Sorenstam with $872,170.
Seemingly with the world in the palm of her hands, Pak still wasn’t happy. Ironic, considering “happy” was one of the first English words Pak learned and also the name she gave her new puppy.
“That was too early for me to handle it all,” she said.
Life in the United States was difficult for a young introvert who barely spoke English and was trying to adapt to a new culture while living life on the LPGA. With that came early perceptions that Pak didn’t have much of a personality, something that couldn’t be further from the truth once you break through her guarded exterior.
“I don’t know why but it’s not easy for me to get close to people,” Pak said. “Once I meet you, talk to you for a couple of minutes, we’ll be really, really good friends forever.”
One of Pak’s loneliest stretches came in 2000, the only year she went without a victory and the only year she finished outside the top three in earnings (11th). It was then that Pak realized she wasn’t playing well because she wasn’t happy with her personal life. She had just broken off a long-term relationship and attempted, unsuccessfully, to bury the pain on the links. The days seemed endless and the lonely, sleepless nights grew longer.
That is no longer the case. Time has healed old wounds, and Pak lists Lopez, Lorie Kane and Janice Moodie as friends who have helped her adjust to the LPGA. Her younger sister, Ae Ri, and older sister, Yoori, have traveled with Pak many times the past few years to keep her company. Now, however, her siblings are not able to travel as frequently. Although Pak misses her family, she doesn’t rely on them like she once did.
“My game is getting better because I’m enjoying myself, the tour, my house, everything,” said Pak, who recently sold her $600,000 home and bought a new $1.2 million mansion in Orlando. “The first few years I was trying to enjoy myself and I couldn’t. I was pushing myself to do better and I pushed myself too much. That’s why I struggled even though it was the perfect time for me to learn more. From then on, I’ve prepared myself first, more than my game.”
All the pieces of the puzzle seem to be fitting nicely together. The final piece eventually will come in the shape of something she has dreamed of for a long time: A perch high atop the world of women’s golf and, with it, the recognition she so richly deserves.
“Hopefully soon,” she said, “it’ll be my time.”