Bound for Hall, Pak's legacy more than wins

Se Ri Pak
Hunter Martin/Getty Images
Se Ri Pak picked up her 24th career victory earlier this year.

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) — Se Ri Pak presided over a table of 10 at a Chinese restaurant in Las Vegas, ordering all the food and making sure everyone had enough to eat. When the fortune cookies arrived, she cracked hers open and read it slowly and softly in her halting English.

"You will lose the small ones, but win the big treasure,'' she said.

After taking a second to let it soak in, Pak looked up at her guests with a big smile.

"Tonight,'' she said, "we go to casino.''

Chairs were pushed back in unison, laughter filled the air and her entourage followed her out the door and across the street to the blackjack tables. It was her second year on the U.S. LPGA Tour, and Pak already had quite a following.

It turned out to be greater than she ever imagined.

Pak will be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame on Monday on her record alone. The U.S. LPGA Tour uses a strict system of points, and the 30-year-old from South Korea reached that level three years ago.

She won five majors, two of them during a rookie season in 1998 that gave women's golf its biggest boost since Nancy Lopez. She picked up her 24th career victory this year. She was so good so young that Pak will be the youngest player to be inducted.

Her legacy, however, will be as a pioneer who inspired a nation.

Pak was not the first South Korean to play or win on the U.S. LPGA Tour, but her success served as a catalyst for more young players to believe they could compete on the strongest circuit in women's golf.

She was among three South Koreans as a rookie. Ten years later, the tour has 45 players from South Korea, which accounts for 38 percent of the U.S. LPGA population.

They aren't just here, they are winning. Three others have won majors (Grace Park, Birdie Kim, Jeong Jang), and four others have followed Pak as the U.S. LPGA rookie of the year.

"It's a lot of pressure on me, because I'm the big sister for them,'' Pak said this year. "And probably because of that, I'm a role model for them. So I have to show them the way. But now, they are already good enough and they all work so hard. And so I'm very proud of it. And I'm proud for myself and proud of them, and I stand beside them.''

And they stand behind her on just about every occasion.

The last requirement for Pak to qualify for the Hall of Fame was 10 full seasons on the U.S. LPGA Tour, and she reached that at the U.S. LPGA Championship in early June. Organizers staged a news conference after the first round at Bulle Rock, complete with a cake, and Pak was stunned to see a dozen South Korean players in the back of the room.

"She set the standard for the Korean gals,'' Juli Inkster said. "All the Korean gals look up to her, how she lives. I don't think that was her plan. She was just so successful.''

At the Kraft Nabisco Championship this year, where Pak was in contention on the weekend as she tried to complete the career Grand Slam, among those in her gallery was Birdie Kim, who had missed the cut.

No other South Korean had won a major until Kim holed out a 90-foot bunker shot on the final hole at Cherry Hills in 2005 to capture the U.S. Women's Open. She made it clear that day Pak was, and always will be, her idol.

"I met her eight years ago when I was young, like a middle school student, and at that time she was a very big player in Korea,'' Kim said. "So me, I just follow her always, watching her, always trying to keep close, play like her. We have really good players like Se Ri Pak, everybody follows her. That's why we can make it more easier.''

Pak will be inducted along with two-time U.S. Open champion Curtis Strange, U.S. Open and U.S. PGA champion Hubert Green, former British Open champion Kel Nagle of Australia, and three-time British Amateur champion Joe Carr of Ireland.

It wasn't always easy for Pak.

There were stories about how her father made her spend the night in a cemetery to improve her mental toughness, and walk up stairs backward to strengthen her legs. Having already won 30 times before turning pro at 18, then finishing no worse than second in 13 out of 14 events, she qualified for the U.S. LPGA Tour on her first attempt.

In her first tournament as a rookie, Pak was paired with Kelli Kuehne, who had turned pro with great fanfare and a big Nike contract. Pak wasn't a total unknown. Laura Davies had seen Pak play, and she placed a bet on Pak winning on her rookie debut when she learned the odds were 66-to-1.

Jim Ritts, the U.S. tour commissioner during Pak's rookie season, also knew something about her. He was at the World Championship in Korea in 1996 when Pak was 19 and received a sponsor's exemption. She finished third behind Annika Sorenstam.

"My first impression was how I felt about Ernie Els,'' Ritts said. "Here was a person who was clearly a gifted athlete and could have chosen to be a star in various sports, and yet she chose golf. I could never have predicted what she was going to do. She didn't speak much English, but she had such joy on the golf course. It was extraordinary to watch.''

But it came at a price.

"Pak-mania'' ruled in the summer of '98, especially after she won the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in a 20-hole playoff against amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. Press centers were packed with South Korean media, as many as 70 reporters and photographers. It was pure chaos inside the ropes. When she returned to South Korea that autumn, she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion.

Television cameras even came into her hospital room to give the latest news.

"She started out as a raw talent, a great ball-striker, very robotic with a flawless swing,'' Inkster said. "When she was in her prime, she was the best. But the thing about Se Ri is she played because that's what she did, not that she really loved the game.''

That showed when Pak went into a deep slump brought on by burnout. She plummeted to 102nd on the money list with not so much as a top 10 in 2005, eventually taking the rest of the year off to cope with injuries. But she slowly seized control of her life, and returned in 2006 with a smile bigger than ever.

She added another major, nearly holing out with a 4-iron hybrid in a playoff against Karrie Webb in the U.S. LPGA Championship, leaping into the arms of her caddie in sheer exultation.

"First time I jumped on the golf course,'' Pak said.

The number of South Koreans keeps growing, most if not all pointing to "big sister'' Pak as their inspiration. The pinnacle for Pak comes at the World Golf Village on Monday when she will be the first South Korean to be inducted.

"In a way, being first means that I am a pioneer for my country,'' she said. "And it makes me proud.''

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