Se Ri Pak is sitting at a large, round table at Szechuan Empire,
a restaurant in New Rochelle, N.Y., eating dinner with her
manager, her parents and two South Korean businessmen, new
friends from the old country. All the conversation is in Korean.
It is a Friday night in mid-July, and Pak has made the 36-hole
cut of the JAL Big Apple Classic easily. She is still wearing
her work clothes and a Samsung baseball cap, brim backward, the
way kids do. She's 20 and two thirds of the way through a rookie
season that's reminding people of early Nancy Lopez, in
bell-bottoms, and early Tiger Woods, in red shirts. Pak has
already won the McDonald's LPGA Championship, the U.S. Open and
the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic, where she shot a 61. But on this
day there was no magic, just a 69.
This is an article from the Aug. 3, 1998 issue
Shortly after being seated, before the cold sesame noodles were
served, Pak's father, Joon Chul, his voice stern and loud, his
eyebrows narrow, revisited his daughter's golf-course blunders.
Se Ri was attentive, impassive. She did not blink. Now she's
having dessert, a single fortune cookie. She unfolds the paper
message. Her English is fair and improving, and she struggles
not at all with the words: "You are competitive and analytical
by nature." Recognizing the truth in this message--a Westerner
would say it was delivered by luck, an Easterner by fate--she
smiles. Not the glowing, toothy smile she shows in triumph. This
expression is more like the hint of a smile. A glimmer. Enough
to show you a brain at work. Enough to remind you what her play
makes you forget: Se Ri Pak is a golfer, not a golfing machine.
A golfing machine--no brain, no emotion, automated
excellence--remains the elusive, unattainable ideal. Ben Hogan
was close to being one. Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer have had
stretches of mechanical ingeniousness. But Pak may turn out to
be the closest thing yet to a human version of Iron Byron, the
ball-testing machine. Her swing, for which the first prototype
was developed only six years ago by her father, is hypnotically
robotic, thoroughly repeatable and extremely beautiful. On
Sunday she won again, taking the Giant Eagle LPGA Classic in
Warren, Ohio, by a stroke. This week the lab experiment
continues. Pak will try to win her third major of the year, the
du Maurier Classic at the Essex Golf & Country Club, in Windsor,
Ont., across the river from Detroit. No golfer, male or female,
has won three majors as a rookie. In fact, only two players,
Hogan, in 1953, and Pat Bradley, in '86, have ever won three pro
majors in a season.
A computer in Seoul at the world headquarters for Samsung, the
global electronics behemoth that sponsors Pak, figures that her
chances of winning this week are 65%. That means--based on a
calculation involving stimpmeter speeds, blood-pressure
readings, putts-per-round statistics, celestial alignments,
etc.--if the tournament could be played three times, Pak would
win twice. That's the problem when you turn sports into science.
The tournament will be played just once this year.
You don't need a computer printout to know that Pak is sizzling.
Her victory last week was her third in four weeks and fourth
this year. Only one LPGA rookie has ever won more: Lopez, who
won nine tournaments in 1978, the year after Pak was born.
Lopez, 41, is the first woman golfer Pak became aware of,
through TV, and now the two are friends, in a mother-daughter
kind of way.
Last Saturday night in Warren, on the practice green at Avalon
Lakes Golf Course, Pak was visibly upset, and Lopez was there to
counsel her. Pak's unhappiness had nothing to do with being
three shots out of the lead. (A hallmark of her game is her
indifference to where she stands on the leader board.) It had
nothing to do with her putting woes, although her putter had
been balky. (The weakness in her game, as it was for Faldo,
Langer and Hogan before her, is unreliable short putting.) Pak's
unhappiness was rooted in her decency. She was feeling pressure
from sponsors to play in the Star Bank LPGA Classic, near
Dayton, the week after the du Maurier. Pak wanted to play in the
event--Star Bank had granted her a sponsor's exemption last
year, before she received her tour card, and she wanted to
return the favor--but Dayton would be her seventh tournament in
seven weeks. For most golfers, playing three straight weeks
turns their brains into mush. Pak was facing one of the first
crises of her rookie year when Lopez put her at ease. "You have
to remember that you're only 20 years old," Lopez told her. "You
have to pace yourself."
Lopez speaks of Pak the way Jack Nicklaus speaks of Woods, with
appreciation and selflessness. "What's happening now definitely
reminds me of what was happening to me 20 years ago," Lopez says.
"When she won the U.S. Open, I was crying with her. The little
amateur played great, but I was rooting for Se Ri, my fellow
On July 6, when Pak defeated that amateur, Jenny Chuasiriporn,
also 20, in a 20-hole playoff to decide the U.S. Open, she was
unprepared for her emotional response: Pak saw the intense
happiness of her parents, and she cried. She said it was the
first time she had ever cried. Her father was surprised by the
tears. Joon Chul, 47, is a successful building contractor in
Daejun, 100 miles south of Seoul, and has been a prominent
amateur golfer in South Korea. He taught Se Ri to play golf and
to control her emotions.
When she was 16, Se Ri, the middle of three daughters, was
terrified of cemeteries, so Joon Chul did the obvious thing. He
pitched a tent in a cemetery near their house, and over a
three-month period he and Se Ri visited the cemetery as often as
five times a week, sometimes spending the night. At dusk Se Ri
would practice chip shots and bunker shots in the dirt by a
reservoir bordering the cemetery. At night the father would tell
his daughter the scariest ghost stories he knew. "I wanted to
develop confidence and toughness," Joon Chul says, explaining
his fathering and golf-tutoring methods.
The fact is, Pak has more emotional detachment from her play
than any other golfer you can think of. It seems almost
unnatural to see a player strolling down fairway after fairway
and across green after green and almost never showing anything.
Judy Rankin, the TV commentator and former pro, is fascinated by
Pak and her composure. "Her emotions are not part of the mix,"
Rankin says. "Controlling your emotions, not being open about
your emotions--Asian culture views that kind of control as a
strength. It's incredible, seeing Americans take to this girl
from South Korea."
That's what was happening on Sunday, in Warren, which is midway
between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Middle America was traipsing
after Pak. She was in the penultimate threesome, with Annika
Sorenstam, the dominant player of the last three years, and
third-year pro Wendy Ward. The group must have had a gallery of
5,000 people, including Pak's parents, her manager and several
Samsung executives. Pak's play is distinctive for its power and
accuracy, and her appearance is equally striking. On Sunday she
was wearing black and white from head to toe, but what you
couldn't stop looking at was her thighs. They are, to be
indelicate but truthful, thick and strong, like Nicklaus's. They
provide the foundation for a swing that brings to mind the sweet
action of Ernie Els, who, like Pak, lives in Orlando and takes
lessons from the same scientist who recreated Faldo in the late
1980s, David Leadbetter.
The team around Pak is extraordinary. Last week her father, who
claims genetic responsibility for Se Ri's thighs and
instructional responsibility for her cross-handed putting, was
often conferring with executives from Samsung. (They are
renegotiating Pak's contract, a 10-year, $10 million deal. The
new pact is expected to pay her more than $3 million a year for
at least three years.) Pak's mother, Jeong Sook Kim, walking
every hole with her daughter, was unmistakable on Sunday with
her billowy sky-blue pants and delicate floral sun umbrella with
lace around the edge. In the fairways, striding down the middle,
was Pak's caddie, a very large man named Jeff Cable, a.k.a.
Tree, a 10-year tour veteran who had never won before getting
Pak's bag. At slow moments during the tournament, Pak leaned
against Tree and took mininaps. ("Mr. Jeff, you are a famous
man," a South Korean TV reporter said to Tree the other day.
"Look into the camera and say hello to Korea.") Everywhere you
looked, there was Pak's manager, Sung Yong Kil, a.k.a. Steven,
28, the hardest-working man in sports. He serves as a translator
for the Pak family, charts every shot Se Ri takes, wipes down
chairs for her before she sits in them, assembles the family for
group pictures that he takes himself, and answers questions
about Se Ri's personal life. "She has no boyfriend," he says.
"She has no time."
Asked on Sunday night if she had done anything fun during her
week in Warren, Pak smiled, shook her head no and said, "I just
practice, sleep, eat, practice." Oh, and play 54 holes in 15
under par, with rounds of 65, 69 and 67, to finish a stroke
ahead of Dottie Pepper. Pak is now first on the LPGA money list,
Pak celebrated on Sunday night--celebration is a foreign concept
to Pak, but she's in America now--by having Chinese takeout from
the same place she had all week, the Sunshine Buffet in Niles,
and ordering up a fruit platter from room service. For several
hours there was a stream of visitors to her cluttered hotel
room: her parents, the Samsung executives, Korean journalists.
Pak spent the evening watching TV, experimenting with putters
and playing with her beagle puppy, Happy.
Pak is well-liked by her fellow golfers, who find her modest
about her success and see her trying hard to connect with
people. The week after winning the Open, Pak went up to one of
her new friends, tour rookie Jen Kangas, and tried out one of
her new phrases. "Let's go for dinner," Pak said. "On me."
The scene in South Korea--that's something Pak is unprepared
for. She's already the most successful professional athlete the
country has produced and the subject of presidential
proclamations. She is not eager to go home and observe firsthand
the bedlam she's creating. Her plan is to play the du Maurier
this week, skip the Star Bank Classic, play the British Open,
skip a week, then play three straight tournaments in the U.S.
She wants to avoid returning home for as long as possible. Or as
her manager said on Sunday night, "She is not going home."
For the next 20 years or so, home for Pak, Lopez predicts, will
be inside the ropes. "That's where I felt most free," Lopez says.
"That's where I could do exactly what I wanted."
Se Ri Pak, just starting, knows exactly what Lopez is talking
about. Her goal is simple: She wants to be the best female
golfer in the world. But Pak is already thinking about her next
life. She wants to come back as a golfer, but this time as a
man, and do it all again.
I was rooting for Se Ri."