SPRINGFIELD, Ill.(AP) The young South Koreans on the LPGA Tour mention the late nights glued to the television set watching Se Ri Pak when they see her. They tell her they idolized her growing up.
It all brings a smile to Pak’s face, gives her a big boost. Along with that comes this awkward revelation.
“To them, I’m an old lady,” she said.
The Hall of Famer shot a bogey-free 6-under 66 on Thursday for a share of the first-round lead with fellow South Korean Jee Young Lee in the State Farm Classic.
A five-time major winner, the 31-year-old Pak is seeking her first top-10 finish in 10 starts this year. If she does, it’ll come against a field that features 49 of the LPGA Tour’s top 50 money winners.
Kris Tamulis opened with a 67, and Natalie Gulbis, Suzann Pettersen and Anja Monke shot 68s at Panther Creek in the final tuneup for the McDonald’s LPGA Classic next week at Bulle Rock in Maryland.
Cristie Kerr and Paula Creamer were in a large group at 69, and Michelle Wie shot a 70. Kraft Nabisco winner Brittany Lincicome was in danger of missing the cut after opening with a 75.
Pak, however, was on target.
Seeking her 25th LPGA Tour win and first since the 2007 Jamie Farr Classic, she had six birdies – three on the final four holes – in tying her lowest round this year.
“Lately, my game’s been getting pretty settled down – getting closer and closer each week,” said Pak, who has finished no higher than 13th this year and is 44th on the money list.
With the season’s second major next week, the timing is pretty good. Pak won the 2006 event at Bulle Rock, beating Karrie Webb in a playoff.
Pak began the day by hitting a sand wedge to 15 feet on par-5 first and completed her round with a flurry, birdying three of the final four holes.
She was at 3 under when she hit a good tee shot and drove a wedge to about 10 feet for the birdie on the par-4 15th and two-putted from 35 feet for birdie on the par-5 16th. She finished the round with a 7-iron to about 15 feet on 18.
Relatively unknown, Lee tied for 10th at the SBS Open at Turtle Bay in February and tied for ninth at the MasterCard Classic the following month. Now, she’s off to a good start at the State Farm – a bogey on the par-3 14th aside. She finished the day by knocking a 6-iron 6 feet from the cup for a birdie on No. 9.
Not long after that, Pak joined her in the lead.
“I feel great,” Pak said. “I have a lot of confidence about my game. The last couple weeks I’ve been so close, but I can’t really score well because my putting was (poor).”
To that end, in a stroke of good luck, she went back to the Never Compromise putter she used early in her career and the change seemed to pay off.
“Seems pretty good to find it deep in the closet,” said Pak, who has a deep, talented field close behind her.
Gulbis, who started on No. 10, was at 5 under and challenging for the lead before bogeying the par-4 eighth. Her second shot clipped the trees and settled in the rough to the right side, but she almost saved par on the hole with a 60-foot putt that slid just past the cup.
“This is a very important stretch for a couple different reasons,” Gulbis said. “It’s a big purse. Next week is a major. … But this is a Solheim Cup year. Every single spot, every single point, every single stroke could be the difference between you making the Solheim Cup.”
For most of the day, she seemed locked in.
Wie, who was in Gulbis’ group, had the distance off the tee but was a bit wild in the long and short games and let her frustration show.
She yelled “You’re kidding me!” when her chip shot on No. 13 sailed about 25 feet beyond the cup, before saving par. There was more frustration and a similar cry – “You’ve got to be kidding me!” – on No. 8 when she chipped a shot past the green to a bunker on the left side. She bogeyed that hole and No. 9 to fall to 2 under.
Not a great round. Not a bad one, either.
She certainly was feeling better than she did after leaving this course last year, when she was one stroke off the lead after three rounds but got disqualified for failing to immediately sign her scorecard. That spoiled a good shot at her first tour victory, which she’s still seeking.
“I do know that there are high standards,” Wie said. “I have very high standards myself so I think it’s great that people have high expectations of me. You know, when those expectations start to drop, then I’ll start to have a problem.”