When a player as young as 20-year-old Se Ri Pak wins a major, you
wonder what she'll do next. Was her startling performance in the
McDonald's LPGA Championship in Wilmington, Del., where she led
wire to wire and won by three strokes, a sign of things to come?
Or is she a one-shot wonder, the distaff Jack Fleck? The
question always boils down to Phenom or fluke? In Pak's case,
though, the answer rolls off the tongue as easily as her name.
Clearly, this woman has game.
In South Korea, her native country, Pak is sometimes referred to
as the Tiger Woods of Asia, and what she did in Wilmington
shook, and also delighted, the LPGA nearly as much as Woods's
1997 win at the Masters energized the PGA Tour. Over a DuPont
Country Club course framed by some of the deepest rough ever
seen in women's golf, Pak bisected the narrow fairways and hit
the small greens with a metronomic efficiency that produced an
11-under-par 273, on rounds of 65, 68, 72 and 68.
It was that last 68 that so impressed most observers. When
things got tight on Sunday's back nine, Pak slammed the door
like a veteran on the challenges of Donna Andrews and Lisa
Hackney, who tied for second. In doing so, Pak became the
youngest woman to win a major since Sandra Post took this event
At first glance, Pak's performance might seem like an accident.
An LPGA rookie who took up golf only six years ago, Pak still
has a mediocre short game, and the win was her first top 10
finish, but the quality of her play was indisputable. Pak may be
good enough to challenge the preeminence of such stars as Annika
Sorenstam of Sweden and Australia's Karrie Webb. That's good
news for the LPGA, whose depth and worldwide appeal have never
With the globalization of golf, and particularly its increased
popularity in Asia, Pak could blossom into a Woods-sized
phenomenon. Although most of the LPGA players still don't know
her, those who do have labeled her as can't-miss. When Laura
Davies noticed before the HealthSouth Inaugural, in January,
that Pak was getting 66-1 odds to win by British bookmakers, she
hustled to get a bet down. Hollis Stacy, the three-time U.S.
Open winner, calls Pak Superbaby. Nancy Lopez, who played the
first two rounds with Pak at Wilmington, was openly rooting for
her on Sunday. "She's got it all," said Lopez, who knows a thing
or two about star quality. "It would be great for women's golf
if she could win."
Pak is impressive on several levels. A schoolgirl sprinter,
hurdler and shot-putter before turning to golf, Pak is 5'6" and
138 pounds with the powerful thighs and trunk of an elite
athlete. Her strength and flexibility are put to good use in the
smooth, compact swing she has built over the last 18 months
under the tutelage of David Leadbetter. Pak's tempo and
follow-through are reminiscent of another Leadbetter pupil, U.S.
Open champion Ernie Els, and while Pak ranks 12th on the tour in
driving distance (251 yards), her forte is accuracy.
Pak hit the ball beautifully at Wilmington, reaching 55 of 72
greens in regulation. But on the weekend, when she failed to
turn good opportunities into the birdies that would have widened
her lead, Pak revealed a remarkable resiliency in one so young.
On Saturday she pulled her tee shot into the water on the par-4
3rd hole, but then hit a five-wood from 196 yards to six feet
and holed the putt for a par. On the back nine Pak missed
several birdie putts from inside 10 feet on greens that were
bumpy after heavy pretournament rains, yet she kept making
pars--she had only six bogeys all week--and held on to a
one-stroke lead. Finally, on the 17th, she three-putted from 15
feet to fall into a tie with Hackney. Although plainly
exasperated, Pak gathered herself again and made a key par putt
at the 18th. "I forget about short putt," Pak said later in
halting English. "I don't mind because I have another hole. It's
not how I think."
After getting a putting tip over the phone from Leadbetter on
Saturday night (he told her to shorten her stroke), Pak came out
and made a 10-footer on the 1st hole on Sunday to retake the
lead. On the final nine several players, including Andrews and
Webb, made strong runs, but only Hackney, with birdies on the
10th and 11th, was able to tie Pak. Hackney faltered with a
bogey at the par-3 13th, and with an impressive instinct for
going for the jugular, Pak made a 20-footer for birdie on the
15th to increase her lead to two. On the next hole, a 465-yard
par-5, she hit the green with a five-wood second shot and
two-putted for the final margin of victory. "It was very
impressive," said Hackney, a 30-year-old Englishwoman who was
last year's rookie of the year. "She never looked like she would
make a mistake."
The sense of control exuded by Pak was palpable enough that it
needed no explanation, which was fine with her. Pak is
self-conscious about her English and shy with other players and
the press. She made herself clear, though, when asked about the
comparisons to Woods. She said that she admires Woods and knows
that, in addition to their golfing ability, photogenic smiles
and high public profiles, they share an affinity for the video
game Mortal Kombat, but that she seeks her own identity. "I
don't want to copy him in everything because I do my best," Pak
said. "Every time I hear Tiger Woods and me second. I want it me
first, then later Tiger."
In Pak's life, golf comes first, second and third. Her father,
Joon Chul Pak, runs a construction company in Daejun, about 100
miles south of Seoul, and is an avid amateur. He steered Se Ri,
the second of his three daughters, toward golf when she was 14.
Over the next four years Pak won more than 30 amateur events in
Asia. She turned pro in 1996 and won six Korean LPGA
tournaments. In December of that year Pak signed a 10-year,
multimillion-dollar endorsement contract with the Samsung
In her homeland Pak's image is on billboards and television, and
her exploits are front-page news. According to Korean
journalists, she is more popular than Los Angeles Dodgers
pitcher Chan Ho Park. More than a dozen Korean writers flew into
Wilmington for the weekend. About 100 fans of Korean descent,
some carrying the country's flag, followed Pak as she played.
Pak dominated Korean newscasts and newspapers last week. After
her win the country's newly elected leader, Kim Dae Jung, sent
presidential congratulations. Regular citizens held parties to
celebrate Pak's victory, the first in the U.S. by a Korean
golfer. "Since our country had its financial problems, Se Ri is
even more important to Korea," says her manager, Steven Sung
Yong Kil. "They look at her for inspiration. Everyone expects
her to be the Number 1 player, and they put a lot of pressure on
her. When she goes back to Korea, or even when she eats at a
Korean restaurant in America, everyone knows her."
In early 1997 Samsung arranged for Pak to move to Orlando to
work with Leadbetter, whom the company paid a six-figure salary,
to prepare for the LPGA Q school in the fall. Although Pak was
homesick, she thrived on the experience, putting in 12-hour days
on the practice range and the course. In July she finished 21st
in the U.S. Open, and at Q school she overcame a second-round 76
to tie for medalist with Cristie Kerr.
"I was skeptical at first," says Leadbetter, "but after I
watched her hit the ball a few times, I knew she had the stuff.
Se Ri has wonderful rhythm and balance, and it makes her swing
very repetitive. Her bad shots simply aren't very bad. Along
with her talent she has a nearly ideal temperament for golf.
She's calm, doesn't berate herself and actually seems to like
pressure. She likes the big time."
Leadbetter says Pak does not yet have a good short game because
she has spent so much time working on her full swing, and
because the majority of greens in Korea are Korai grass and are
much slower than most greens in North America, which have grass
with finer blades. Leadbetter is sure that Pak will overcome
this shortcoming. "As a worker she's in Nick Faldo's class," he
says. "I have to make sure she doesn't work too hard."
Pak shares an apartment near Leadbetter's Lake Nona headquarters
with Kil, who conducts her business affairs and acts as her
guardian. "The hardest part right now for Se Ri is that she
doesn't have any friends her own age," says Kil. "She
understands this, and she knows she will have some, but when
she's not playing golf, her life is hard." As an antidote to
loneliness, Pak calls her parents in Korea every day.
Pak's parents, her older sister, Yoo Ri, and other relatives
stayed up all night to nervously watch the satellite broadcast
of the last round. When Pak sank the final putt, Monday was
dawning in Korea, and cheers and tears filled the Pak household.
"I'm so overwhelmed that I can't describe my emotions," said
Pak's mother, Jeong Sook Kim, "but if Se Ri were here, I'd carry
her around on my back."
Among Americans, Pak's closest relationship is with her caddie,
43-year-old Jeff (Tree) Cable, a 6'5" part-time high school
basketball coach from Lakeland, Fla., who before Wilmington had
been looping on the LPGA tour for 10 years without a win. "Se Ri
is a sweet person, but when it comes to golf she's very
impatient," he says. "She wants to get there, and she wants to
get there now. We play practice rounds on Monday, which is
unheard of, and she once hit balls after the final round on a
Sunday, which is even more unusual. She gets tears in her eyes
when she doesn't play well. I remember after our fourth
tournament this year, in Tucson, she looked at me very seriously
and said, 'Tree, why I no win?' This week it all came together,
and when she got in the heat, she seemed at home."
Even if her English improves and she makes friends, Pak seems
destined to live most intensely on the golf course. Her goal
this season is to win five tournaments, and she looks forward to
showdowns with Sorenstam, Webb, Liselotte Neumann and Kelly
Robbins. Beyond becoming the best woman golfer ever, she has one
other long-term objective: She believes in reincarnation, and in
her next life she wants to come back as the top male golfer in
history. Like she said, "Me first, then later Tiger."
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND [Se Ri Pak]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND STRETCH DRIVE Hackney caught Pak on Saturday but couldn't pass her on Sunday. [Lisa Hackney golfing]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND CHIPPING AWAY Leadbetter predicts that Pak's play around the greens will improve in short order. [Se Ri Pak golfing]
At 20 years, 7 months and 19 days, Se Ri Pak is the
second-youngest winner of the LPGA Championship, but she's an
old fogy compared to Tom Morris Jr., the youngest major
championship winner in history. Here are the youngest winners of
the men's and women's majors.
Masters Tiger Woods 1997 21 yrs, 3 mos, 14 days
U.S. Open John McDermott 1911 19 yrs, 10 mos, 14 days
British Open Tom Morris Jr. 1868 14 yrs, 4 mos, 4 days
PGA Gene Sarazen 1922 20 yrs, 5 mos, 22 days
Dinah Shore Juli Inkster 1984 23 yrs, 9 mos, 15 days
LPGA Sandra Post 1968 20 yrs, 19 days
Women's Open Catherine Lacoste 1967 22 yrs, 5 days
du Maurier Brandie Burton 1993 21 yrs, 7 mos, 21 days
"The hardest part for Se Ri is that she doesn't have any friends
her own age," says Kil.