Pak out of the rough, and out of her shell

The Baltimore Sun

The portrait of Se Ri Pak was painted nearly a decade ago, at the 1998 LPGA Championship and later that summer at the U.S. Women's Open. It was at those major championships that the shy 20-year-old rookie from South Korea showed little emotion but lots of ability in winning her first two LPGA tournaments.

Not only didn't Pak pump her fists, she barely blinked her eyelids. It didn't change much over the next eight years and 20 victories, including two majors. Then came an afternoon last June at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace when Pak finally let the world see what was stirring inside.

It happened in the final round of the LPGA Championship, on the first playoff hole against Karrie Webb, a Hall of Famer and former No. 1-ranked player. It happened when Pak nearly holed out with a 4-iron from the fairway, a 201-yard shot that would lead to a clinching birdie.

"I definitely was feeling great after hitting that shot. I never realized it was that close because I can't see it from my distance," Pak said recently. "As soon as I get there, I saw it and I was thinking, 'That was unbelievable.'"

What was even more remarkable was Pak's reaction to her shot immediately after she saw her ball land inches from the flagstick and cup.

Pak high-fived and hugged her caddie, T.J. Jones.

Jay Burton, who has represented Pak since 1999 for the Cleveland-based International Management Group, couldn't believe what he was witnessing. Not the rebirth of Pak's career, which will include her induction into the LPGA and World Golf halls of fame later this year, but Pak's new personality emerging.

"Jumping into her caddie's arms, that's something she would not have done a few years ago," Burton said last month at the Kingsmill Resort and Spa in Williamsburg, Va., before the Michelob Ultra Open. "She didn't do that when she won here in what you would have thought would be the pinnacle of her career."

Burton was referring to Pak's 2004 victory that gave her enough points to qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame. Her official qualification comes this week when she tees up in the McDonald's LPGA Championship, marking the end of her 10th full season on tour and the final criterion for her inclusion.

"That is basically my dream come true, the moment that I most thought about," said Pak, now 29. "I'm very excited, very nervous."

Her win at Bulle Rock validated Pak's rededication to the game after she was limited to 12 events in 2005 with a variety of injuries and was ultimately sidelined for four months because of a finger injury that prevented her from gripping the club properly. But she acknowledged that her forced sabbatical from the game couldn't have come at a better time.

"For eight years I really push myself a lot, give myself a lot of pressure and I don't think I have enough breaks," she said last month. "Always thinking about the next year and working on the right thing to do. It was the first time I didn't enjoy playing golf."

Renewed energy

While she had become the pied piper for dozens of young South Koreans who made a similar, albeit not as successful, pilgrimage to the LPGA Tour, Pak was clearly not the same player who had won four times as a rookie and had finished second on the money list in four of her first six years.

Burton could see that Pak had relaxed a bit after her victory in Williamsburg three years ago.

"Eight years have gone by and I've done X, Y and Z and it was like, 'Phew, time to sit back and smell the roses a little bit,'" Burton said of Pak's mind-set at the time. "The motivation might have been lacking and the injuries came. It kind of snowballed."

Said Pak: "I was probably tired, but I never realized it. It keep making it worse and worse and worse, and in '05 it was really off. I always had a lot of great friends out here, but I never saw my friends. I was always busy, busy. Now I see more friends. Now I feel really, really free."

Pak's role as part mentor and part idol to the other South Koreans had added to the pressure she felt on and off the course.

"I have a lot of pressure, because I am a leader and all the Korean players are trying to do as best as I could," Pak said. "It's not easy. Trying to show them what is the best way to do it. Overall, they are doing really well. If they have a question or they need something, they come over and ask."

Jeong Jang, a 26-year-old Korean who once idolized Pak and now considers her a close friend, said that Pak is much different away from the course.

"She's a totally normal person," said Jang, the 2005 Women's British Open champion. "She's absolutely friendly. Everybody thinks she's a star and hard to talk to. Not at all. She's really nice and she likes to take care of the younger players."

Webb recalled getting a hug from Pak after her own remarkable fairway shot on the final hole of regulation helped the Australian win the Kraft Nabisco Championship a few months before they met in sudden death at Bulle Rock. Webb said that Pak told her, "It's my turn next."

Nearly a year after she lost to Pak, the sting of the disappointment remains for Webb. But she is quick to add, "There wasn't probably a person in the field that I would have been happier to see win."

'A cultural icon'

Now that she is headed for a pair of induction ceremonies later this year, the stories about Pak's upbringing in South Korea will be retold. After she won the LPGA Championship at DuPont Country Club in Wilmington, Del., in 1998, there was a story in The New York Times about how Jun Chil Pak used to make his only child walk past a cemetery at night to toughen her up.

It made Earl Woods, Tiger's late father and a former Green Beret, seem like Mister Rogers.

"He was my father, my coach, my friend," Pak said. "He worked me very hard, from the bottom up."

And the cemetery story?

"He let me practice until late at night, maybe until midnight, and the range would close by like 10 p.m.," Pak recalled. "It was his friend's place and I could practice as late as I want. Nobody was there. Practicing in the dark.

"It was not easy, at such a young age. I was like 14, 15, just by myself. That kind of made the weird rumors going on. After practice I would walk home, not too far, but late at night [past the cemetery]. Not things that were crazy, but he made me practice as much as I could."

It has all paid off. Pak's parents still live in South Korea, but their daughter spends most of her time based in Orlando, Fla. When she goes home for a few weeks after each season, her visits become national news. Think Woods, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali rolled into one.

"She's bigger for the country than Tiger is [in the U.S.]," said K.S. Chang, a Korean lawyer who grew up in Toronto and now represents 18 LPGA players. "She'll always be a cultural icon. There's a concept in Korea called national treasure. Some people usually in the arts are considered natural treasures, an artist or painter. She's almost at that level of being a national treasure."

don.markus@baltsun.com

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