INCHEON, South Korea – Retirement suits Se Ri Pak. The South Korean legend took off down the rope line on the first hole at the UL International Crown last Thursday, buzzing about the atmosphere. It was already better than the 2015 Presidents Cup, she surmised. More intense.
Pak retired from the LPGA exactly two years ago, enjoying an elaborate celebration at the KEB Hana Bank Championship, where she played only one round.
“I do love the way I am right now,” she noted, looking as relaxed as ever. Pak said her endeavors away from competition have ushered in a new season of maturity.
As Honorary Director of the first Crown to be staged overseas, Pak raised the South Korean flag during a first-tee ceremony at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club. The ever-stoic Sung Hyun Park, current World No. 1, thought her heart might bust wide open from the stirring scene.
The frenzied theater at this unique global event can be traced back to Pak, the trailblazing force who inspired a nation to not only take up golf, but dominate in the women’s sphere. Pak couldn’t take a step inside the ropes without having a fan approach to ask for an autograph and a selfie. She patiently obliged them all.
Two years ago Pak was surrounded by security at the Hana Bank. At the Crown, a familiar face took on the role.
“I am the bodyguard,” said a grinning Jiyai Shin, flexing her muscles. Shin, a former No. 1, owns 53 career titles worldwide, including two majors. She now plays on the Japan LPGA but joined a couple of well-known South Korean retirees – Birdie Kim and Hee-Won Han – in cheering on the home team.
Kim, the 2005 U.S. Women’s Open winner, retired from professional golf three years ago and now works with the South Korean national team. Han, a six-time LPGA winner, works as a television commentator.
Much has changed since Pak first burst onto the worldwide stage in 1998. And while eight South Koreans are now ranked inside the top 20, with more victories than any other country, Pak looks at the landscape and sees areas that can be improved.
“We are so far behind,” said Pak, a stunning comment given South Korea’s enormous success on the LPGA.
Pak’s main focus in retirement is to build an international sports academy near Seoul, and she’s currently shopping for a sponsor. Her main criticism is that training in all sports is a one-size-fits-all approach. Golfers in general, she said, aren’t physically strong enough to avoid injuries.
And while South Koreans are mentally tough when they get to the U.S. because the pressure at home is, as Pak said, already over the top, young players can easily suffer from burnout because they don’t have time to recharge. The pressure to win, and to win often on the LPGA, both from media and sponsors, often leads to shorter careers as players push themselves too far.
“I see that happening to so many players,” Pak said. “I hate watching.”
It’s common for players to win one week and miss the cut the next. That’s golf, Pak said. Yet it’s a concept many of her compatriots still don’t understand. And while rankings are important, what South Koreans really want to see is their players holding the trophy.
“That’s my country,” she said.
These days the 41-year-old Pak spends considerable time with young players who are eager to follow in her footsteps. She preaches sportsmanship, etiquette and the important role mishits can play.
“Bad shot, bad day bad tournament doesn’t matter,” Pak said. “You want to be a top player, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes. Don’t worry, long way to go.”
It’s an important message for any young player, but especially for South Koreans growing up in a cauldron of expectation.
And while it’s easy to get lost in your own world in the pursuit of excellence, Pak has something to say about that too: “You can’t be alone. It’s not healthy.”
All this wisdom pours out of Pak like she’s on a mission. One should expect nothing less from a national treasure who earned her crown ages ago. Gwk