Se Ri Pak's career has lasting global impact on LPGA
— -- SAN MARTIN, Calif. -- Athletes come and go, but few change their sport. Se Ri Pak -- who is retiring after this season and whose appearance in this week's U.S. Women's Open at CordeValle likely will be the last time she competes in America -- did.
You could say Pak is the Arnold Palmer of the Republic of Korea, but that might not be giving her enough credit.
Before Pak arrived on the scene in 1998, both a complete player and a complete surprise, one South Korean, Ok-Hee Ku, had won one LPGA tournament, the Standard Register Turquoise Classic, a decade earlier.
Ku, who died in 2013 at 56, was a pioneering figure in women's golf in her home country and instrumental in establishing a tour there. But her victory, coming only a few months before the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, received little attention.
That did not happen when Pak, only 20 years old and an LPGA rookie, won the McDonald's LPGA Championship and, in particular, the U.S. Women's Open, in 1998. Pak lifted the Open trophy at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin after a 20-hole playoff with Jenny Chausiriporn.
After Pak's Open victory, women's golf became a very big deal in South Korea, where people tend to immerse themselves in their pursuits, working diligently to become as good as they can be. A generation of Korean girls, encouraged by their parents, was attracted to golf and many of them became very, very good at a sport for which Pak was instantly a beacon and barometer.
Forty Korean-born players have won 149 of the 561 LPGA events held since Pak outlasted Chausiriporn, a contingent that includes In Gee Chun, who was 20 when she won last year's U.S. Women's Open.
"She's a hero to all the Korean players," Chun said. "Her U.S. Open win was a motivating factor for all the Korean junior players and parents. Thanks to her win, all the Korean players have come so far. And the Korean golf industry has grown a lot."
American Stacy Lewis, an 11-time LPGA winner and currently No. 8 in the Rolex Rankings, credits Pak's influence with stabilizing the tour's very existence when it was hurting for sponsors not long ago.
"Without the Korean and Asian TV rights, this tour four or five years ago might not be here anymore. We were at a point where we had 23 events and I think half of those were in Asia. So the Asia market basically supported us there for a couple of years and allowed us to get to where we are now. Se Ri's a huge part of that."
Pak triggered a globalization of women's golf in which Koreans played the lead. Five of the world's top 10 players are Korean, 10 of the top 20. Since 2012, Koreans led by Inbee Park -- the Pak of her time -- have won 11 majors, more than twice as many as golfers from the U.S. (five). Koreans have captured the U.S. Women's Open seven of the past 11 years, and since Pak won at Blackwolf Run, 11 other Koreans have won at least one major.
It all started with that long-ago Open playoff triumph, vivid in Pak's mind. "That's the best moment I ever, ever had," she said. "Feels like yesterday, too. I have seen the video over and over. It makes me cry still."
Pak's impressive record -- 25 victories, including six major titles -- can make it seem as if it came easy for the 38-year-old, but nothing can be further from the truth. In a long, candid session with reporters at CordeValle on Wednesday, Pak articulated how consuming the sport has been and the hidden costs of achievement.
"People thought I was such a success at a very young age, making a lot of money," Pak said. "I don't think I've been a happy person ever. After winning [a tournament], that moment I'm holding the trophy, I'm so happy because that's just the way I want it. And then back at the hotel, I feel lonely."
Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA's chief operations officer, was a rookie player in 1998 with Pak and saw the sacrifice that went into the success.
"I was always amazed by Se Ri and other players who came from overseas," Daly-Donofrio said. "They could leave their homes, come to the United States, travel , leave everything that they knew, not knowing the language, the culture or anybody else on tour."
To Daly-Donofrio, Pak put not only South Korea, but lots of other countries as well, on the golf map.
"Not only did she inspire players from Korea," Daly-Donofrio said, "but it had a trickle effect. Players from other countries, from Thailand or Japan or China, said if Se Ri could do it, they could, too."
For Pak's younger countrywomen, the appreciation is deep. "She created this generation of Inbee and So Yeon Ryu and all those girls," Lewis said. "Now you've got the even younger ones coming out that are inspired by Inbee. And Se Ri's the one to thank for it all. She's the one that came over by herself and didn't speak much of the language and figured it out and kind of became the mold to all the other players to follow. "And all those girls realize it. They're always thanking Se Ri. They know it, and that's the coolest part about it."
Just like Pak is grateful for what Ku did for her.
"Without her, I don't think I'm here and all the Korean golfers aren't going to be here," Pak said. "She's my hero."
After retiring from competition, Pak hopes she can teach as well as inspire, to convince Korean tour professionals to find a balance in their lives that has been elusive for her. She plans to move from Orlando, Florida, back to her homeland to pass on lessons that she has learned.
"I'm trying to share my life," Pak said, "having [them] learn from all my career. Everybody works so hard. They put 110 percent into the game, every single day, every single hour. But you don't have to do it 24/7. I used to be that way. But the most important thing is you have to really enjoy it. When you enjoy it, you'll have better success."
If Pak's message gets through, it might be her biggest victory.
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