2006: Back for a refill

Havre de Grace, Md.

When Se Ri Pak saw Karrie Webb for the first time following Webb’s playoff victory at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Pak couldn’t wait to give her friend a congratulatory embrace. Pak and Webb had struggled through similar issues the previous 24 months and Pak was there to show her support. After a five-minute chat, Pak left Webb with one final comment.

“She said, ‘Good to see you back playing well, now it’s my turn. I’ll win the next one,’ ” Webb recalled. “And there, she went and did it.”

Never would Webb have imagined that Pak’s victory would come at her expense. Pak atoned for a three-putt bogey on the 72nd hole of the McDonald’s LPGA Championship June 11 when she nestled a 201-yard approach within 3 inches of the cup for a playoff victory over Webb. Pak shot 71-69-71-69 at Bulle Rock for an 8-under-par 280 to collect her 23rd career victory – the first since the 2004 Michelob – and her fifth major championship.

Michelle Wie sandwiched bogeys on Nos. 16 and 18 – the last after an aggressive birdie try from 50 feet ran 8 feet past the hole – around a missed 8-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th. She tied for fifth, two shots back.

If a victory of any magnitude seemed improbable for Pak a year ago, a major championship was downright unfathomable. Pak had grown miserable and burned out early last year, having fallen into a routine where golf had become her life. She’d wake up, practice eight hours, go home, eat dinner, go to sleep. During tournament weeks, the routine changed only slightly: an hour warm-up, play a round, a post-round hour of practice, dinner, then sleep.

Pak, 28, was playing so terribly that she didn’t know where to turn. Then she injured her hand at the Weetabix Women’s British Open and withdrew. At the time, it seemed like a devastating injury; in reality, it helped rejuvenate Pak’s career. She didn’t play in another event for the rest of the year and spent August to November healing her hand and her head. It was the only thing that would erase the dismal results – 12 events, four missed cuts and only one top-30 finish. She earned $62,628, which was 102nd on the money list. Pak, a four-time runner-up in earnings (1998, 2001, ’02, ’03), had never been worse than 12th in her previous seven years.

“After that, I’m very happy to be back again,” Pak said. “I’m having fun on the golf course – more than I ever have.”

This season began slowly for Pak as she struggled to find a rhythm through five events. At that point, it wasn’t clear which Pak would emerge. But the four tournaments prior to the McDonald’s had shown glimmers of the old Pak, the one who qualified for the Hall of Fame at age 26 and will enter at the end of 2007. She tied for ninth at the Ginn Clubs & Resorts Open and had recorded a couple more top 25s.

The LPGA Championship was the perfect place for Pak’s rebirth. It was at this event eight years ago – at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del. – where Pak, a wet-behind-the-ears rookie

in her first major championship as a pro, went wire-to-wire to win her first LPGA title. A month later, she won the U.S. Women’s Open and ultimately finished second in earnings for the season behind Annika Sorenstam.

Pak played beautifully all week at Bulle Rock, joining Mi Hyun Kim as the only players to record all four rounds under par. She was paired with Sorenstam and Webb in Round 3, and Webb was so impressed with Pak’s play that she told final-round playing partner Sherri Steinhauer that Pak would win in the near future.

It was a frenzy over the final nine holes, with as many as eight players having an opportunity to win. Sorenstam played poorly the first three rounds, but shot 68 Sunday to take the clubhouse lead at 5 under. Moments later, Cristie Kerr posted 68 to get into the house at 6 under. But Webb bettered Kerr’s score by two shots, leaving only Pak and Wie with victory chances.

If Wie, 16, had putted like a 12-handicapper she would have won by a landslide. Instead, she missed putt after putt and threw away another major opportunity.

Wie has finished in the top 5 in four of her past five major championships, but she’s still winless as a pro. And she can blame it on her putter. Wie needed 35 putts Sunday and 126 for the week, a ridiculously high number for someone in contention.

“I feel like I’m getting closer and closer,” Wie said. “It shows a lot that I played with my B-game and I’m still in the top 5.”

Pak came to the 18th hole with a one-shot lead, but three-putted from 30 feet for bogey to back into a playoff with Webb. Pak hit a fat 3-wood off the tee and, though in the fairway, was 70 yards behind Webb’s drive. Seemingly at an extreme disadvantage, Pak brilliantly hit a hybrid club to 3 inches, then did a dance reminiscent of Webb’s when she holed out from the fairway for eagle on the 72nd hole to force a playoff at the Kraft Nabisco two months ago.

“I thought I was getting some of my own medicine back,” said Webb, who shot 70-70-72-68. “I was waiting for it to drop in the hole.”

It didn’t until five minutes later, after Webb missed her 20-foot birdie attempt. It was followed by another embrace, an awkward I-told-you-so of sorts from Pak.

Although Webb didn’t win and her Grand Slam hopes were smashed, she said she was pleased to see Pak back in the winner’s circle. The two are more similar than many imagine. Both had so much success at an early age, qualified for the Hall of Fame quickly and then struggled to stay motivated, which led to their problems the past two seasons.

“You’re working really hard, but with no real purpose,” Webb said. “I know it happened to me, and from watching from afar with Se Ri, I think maybe it happened to her.”

Now Webb and Pak seemed to have found purpose and motivation at relatively the same time. After a two-year slump, Pak says she has never felt so good.

“I was just very comfortable out there,” Pak said. “(It) totally feels like I’m back.”


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