The significance of the moment was lost on most passersby. A
couple of giddy young golfers, Kelli Kuehne and Se Ri Pak, were
congratulating each other with a high five after the final round
of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament in Daytona Beach. The two
20-year-olds had just cleared the most ulcer-inducing hurdle in
their fledgling pro careers and were among the 23 players who
earned full exemptions for the 1998 season. Together they will
begin what could be a bright era in the women's game.
Never mind that Pak, from Seoul, South Korea, had tied for first
with another promising 20-year-old, Cristie Kerr, by shooting a
Q school-record 10-under-par 278 at the 6,393-yard LPGA
International Golf Club, or that Kuehne, of McKinney, Texas, had
tied for fifth, six strokes back. What's more important is that
for the first time, the LPGA will have two promising rookies
join the tour with big games and all the advantages and support
usually reserved for the top players on the PGA Tour. That's why
LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts was so upbeat as he addressed the Q
school graduates, including another 35 players who earned
conditional cards, at an orientation session last Saturday.
"Players like Kelli and Se Ri definitely add to the visibility
of our tour," Ritts said. "They represent the new breed of LPGA
players, young women with no fear and the complete package."
Kuehne became a hot commodity last fall after winning
consecutive U.S. Amateurs and then signing a $1.3 million
endorsement contract with Nike. (She later added smaller deals
with Spalding and Estee Foods.) Because Nike did not renew the
contracts of other LPGA golfers, Kuehne's deal infuriated many
players. They couldn't understand why a company would put all of
its LPGA money behind a woman who didn't even have a tour card.
Kuehne wasn't happy with the criticism. "It wasn't fair what was
being said," she says. "I was lucky to be in the right place at
the right time. I'm grateful that some people went out on a limb
Kuehne set out to prove that her backers had picked a winner,
but this summer she missed three cuts in the four LPGA starts
she was allowed through sponsors' exemptions. Although Kuehne
turned some heads by finishing a solid 21st in the U.S. Women's
Open--as Amateur champ she had an automatic spot in that
field--she knew that if she failed to get her card at Q school,
not only would she be lampooned by the critics, but she would
also have nowhere but the mini-tours to play next year, and her
value to her sponsors would plummet.
To prepare for Q school, Kuehne did not register for classes
this semester at Texas--she would have been a junior--instead
moving back to her parents' house in McKinney. She reduced her
life to golf and health maintenance. A diabetic, Kuehne must
take two injections of insulin a day and monitor her diet. On
every day but Sunday, Kuehne's routine consisted of a grueling
workout in a gym and a practice session with swing coach Hank
Haney, followed by hours on the practice tee beating balls. To
ready herself for the huge greens at LPGA International, Kuehne
became a regular at Stonebriar Country Club in Dallas, which
also has enormous putting surfaces. Kuehne hired Tracy Phillips,
a former assistant of Haney's and now the director of
instruction at his own facility in Tulsa, as a caddie so he
could help her around the greens during Q school.
Kuehne's preparation paid off. She started the tournament by
birdieing the 1st hole, knocking her nine-iron approach to
within a foot of the cup, and didn't make a bogey until the 17th
hole of the second round. Despite playing in front of a
swooshed-out entourage that included Haney, her parents, Ernie
and Pam, and Nike field representative Scott McKern, Kuehne
seemed relaxed all week. "It shocked me that there was no
panic," says Haney.
Kuehne had rounds of 69-72-71-72. "Kelli hits it awfully well,"
says Jan Kleiman of Lakeland, Fla., one of Kuehne's playing
partners. "She showed that she deserves whatever Nike gave her.
She'll do well on tour. No problem."
Kuehne was as relieved as she was pleased with her performance.
"I had something to prove to a lot of people," she said. "I
wanted to show that I belong, and now I'm a card-carrying LPGA
member. I have every right to be out there on tour."
As good as Kuehne is, she will have to step it up if she wants
to stay with Pak, who looks as if she could have as big an
impact on the LPGA as Karrie Webb did in her rookie season two
years ago. Pak was 14 when she took up the game. Two years
later, as an amateur, she won the first pro tournament she
entered, the Lyle and Scott Tournament, in Seoul. Pak lost a
semifinal match to Kuehne in the '95 Amateur, won several more
professional events in South Korea, then turned pro in April 1996.
Pak, along with Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park, is one
of the most popular athletes in South Korea. Last fall she
entered into a five-year endorsement deal with the Samsung
corporation that includes a $1.3 million signing bonus, a
$200,000 annual salary, reimbursement for her expenses and
generous performance bonuses. The contract is considered to be
the largest ever in women's golf.
In January, Samsung sent Pak to the U.S. so she could prepare
for Q school. The company spared no expense, appointing a
manager, K.R. Kim, who caters to Pak's every wish, leasing a
three-bedroom apartment for her in Orlando and hiring David
Leadbetter to be her coach. Samsung is now interviewing caddies
for the '98 season.
Leadbetter, who hadn't worked regularly with an LPGA player, was
skeptical when he got a call from a high-ranking Samsung
executive asking if he would be interested in tutoring Pak, but,
he says, "after watching her swing a few times I knew that she
was the real thing."
The 5'6", 138-pound Pak has two natural gifts: the mellifluous
rhythm of her swing and the large muscles around her
mid-section. "They allow her to generate power while keeping the
hands passive. This breeds a powerful, repetitive swing," says
Leadbetter, who followed Pak for the final two days of Q school.
Pak's biggest weapon, though, is her attitude. She is gregarious
off the course but deadly serious on it. Pak's goal is to be the
best player in the world. (She believes in reincarnation and
hopes to come back someday as a man so she can be the No. 1
player of both genders.) According to Leadbetter, Pak practices
as intensely as one of his other clients, Nick Faldo, golf's
Pak played in six LPGA events this year, making five cuts and
$46,311. Her best finish was a tie for sixth at the Australian
Ladies Masters. Recently she won two tournaments in South Korea,
defeating Kuehne to earn $72,000 in the Rose Open and whipping
Laura Davies by nine shots to take the $54,000 first prize in
the Seoul Ladies Open. Last week, with Tom Creavy, one of
Leadbetter's assistants, as her caddie, Pak led the field in
birdies (20), averaged 28 putts (with no three-putts) and twice
had the low round of the day (68 on Oct. 21 and 67 last Friday).
"Wow! She hits it a mile, has no fear and can putt," says Liz
Earley of St. Catharines, Ont., who played with Pak last
Thursday. "She's awesome to watch and has star quality. Watch
On the final day Pak fell six shots behind Kerr, with whom she
was paired, after eight holes. Pak made six birdies over the
next 10 holes, and were it not for a missed five-footer at the
18th, she would have birdied the last four holes to win by a
Pak takes English lessons but last week spoke to reporters
through an interpreter. She said she would celebrate her success
at Q school by playing her favorite video games, Mortal Kombat
and Tetris. "I don't feel like a visitor anymore," Pak said,
smiling sheepishly. "This is a wonderful country. I'm here to
That message was lost on no one.