At a glance, everything looks normal again on the LPGA tour. On
Sunday in the fourth and final round of the fourth and final
major of the season, Annika Sorenstam, the best woman golfer in
the world, made up two shots on the leader but could not find a
third and finished second at the du Maurier Classic, in Windsor,
Ont. The winner, by a stroke, was Brandie Burton. She played the
first three rounds at the Essex Golf & Country Club in 18 under
par. Great stuff. On Sunday, Burton shot level par, 72, getting
up and down from a washroom, the media center and a soft drink
stand. O.K., that's an overstatement, but she made some lovely
saves, eh? For her efforts she earned the biggest check of her
career, $180,000 (U.S.). Sorenstam had a nice payday, too,
$111,711, and with her winnings the amiable Swede returned to
the top of the money list. That's where she was at the end of
last season. She led the money list in 1995, too. All is tidy
and cozy again in the little world of ladies' pro golf, yes? No.
At the du Maurier, the LPGA entered its Se Ri Pak Era, named for
the brilliant, stoic rookie from South Korea who is unaccustomed
to Western mores and manners but whose talent is infecting
everything connected with the women's tour. This includes
Sorenstam's speech. Example: "I want to kick her butt." That is
not a sentence one normally associates with Sorenstam, but
that's what she said about the kid who has won four times this
year, twice in majors. Pak, 20 years old and worn out from
playing six consecutive weeks, sleepwalked through the du
Maurier and finished 41st. Somehow, though, she was in
everything. Everywhere you looked there were new sights to see,
and Pak was responsible for all of them.
In last Thursday's long dusk, in a grassy park along the Detroit
River, the extended Pak family--Se Ri, her parents and her
beagle puppy, Happy, along with several Korean businessmen--ate
a picnic dinner, takeout from a Korean restaurant. On Friday a
Korean fan eager to see Pak walked across a fairway in the
middle of play, oblivious to the rest of the tournament. On
Saturday a writer from Newsweek sat on the grass beside the
practice green and interviewed Jeff (Tree) Cable, Pak's gigantic
caddie. On Sunday there were three dozen Korean sportscasters,
reporters and cameramen on the course, documenting each of Pak's
Golf is resistant to newcomers and new ways, and at the du
Maurier, Sorenstam said publicly what some of her fellow tour
players would say only to one another: "Se Ri is a great player,
and she has brought a lot of people out here, but the only thing
she's done for me is fire me up. I want to put her where she
belongs. There are other players out here, and I'm one of them.
She has some things to learn. She's driven, but also
self-centered. Se Ri says she wants to be like Nancy Lopez, but
the only way she will be like Nancy is in the records she sets."
August 9, 1998
There is, however, a golfer Pak shares much with: Tiger Woods.
His very name implies so much change that some people in women's
golf are afraid to even link it in a sentence with Se Ri, but
the similarities between the two golfers are striking. For
starters, both have Asian mothers and monomaniacal fathers.
Woods's mother, Kultida, who is 54, was born and raised in
Thailand and is a practicing Buddhist. Pak's mother, Jeong Sook,
who is 45, was born and raised in South Korea and is also a
practicing Buddhist. Both mothers taught their golfing children
the central tenets of the religion--leading a disciplined,
tranquil life in the hopes of finding a pathway to Nirvana.
As for the fathers--Earl Woods is 66, while Joon Chul Pak is
47--they are both former army men achieving something
significant through the sporting accomplishments of their
children. They're getting even. Earl Woods is getting even with
every racist he encountered while trying to pursue the American
dream. Joon Chul Pak is doing something equally difficult: He's
reclaiming his family name. Over the course of last week's
tournament, in interviews and in informal conversations, Pak and
her parents and their friends and business associates told the
Pak family history and, with it, the story of the education of a
most unlikely golfer.
Se Ri, the middle of three daughters, grew up in Taejon, 100
miles south of Seoul. Taejon is a sprawling, crowded, industrial
city with a reputation for corrupt politicians and lawless
businessmen. In the 1980s Joon Chul ran a construction business
by day and worked in the city's seamy nightclub business by
night. He was what Koreans call a kkangpae, a hooligan. He helped
friends get liquor licenses and get buildings built, by whatever
means necessary. He was in fights and more than once woke up in
jail, arrested for disorderliness. He made money and, with it,
One night in 1988--at a time when Joon Chul was, he says,
attempting to go straight--he was attacked by those enemies. A
group of men jumped him and stabbed him repeatedly, in the head,
the stomach and the thigh. He nearly died. The scars, gruesome,
are still evident. He spent most of a year in a hospital while
the rest of the family went to Hawaii, where Joon Chul's older
brother lived. In his hospital bed, while recuperating, Joon
Chul made two significant decisions: He made up his mind to
become a Buddhist, and he vowed to devote himself to his family.
When the family returned to Korea, Joon Chul, once a scratch
golfer, put Se Ri's golf ahead of everything else.
To teach her discipline and to groove her swing, Pak had his
daughter swing over and over without hitting a ball, sometimes
1,000 times, sometimes 2,000. To develop leg strength, he had
her climb steps in 15-story buildings, descending backward to
build up her hamstrings. He had her lift weights and do pull-ups
and push-ups to develop upper-body strength. "A woman's breasts
interfere with her swing," Joon Chul says, speaking through an
interpreter. "By building muscles in her upper body, there would
be less interference." In the summer Se Ri would hit balls in
the sweltering humidity. In the winter she would run mountains
in the unbearable cold, returning to the family's apartment with
perspiration frozen on her clothes.
Teaching discipline is the central role of the father in
traditional Korean family life, and that was the case in the Pak
house. As a young girl, when Se Ri failed to obey her father,
and that happened infrequently, she was struck with a small
wooden stick called a pechori, common in Korean households. Se
Ri received outward expressions of love from her mother. Her
father made his love felt indirectly, but profoundly. One night,
after Se Ri was struck with the pechori, Joon Chul came to her
bed and put balm on his daughter's welts. Any Korean will tell
you that this act from a father is exceptional. Se Ri,
pretending to be asleep, wept with happiness. In Korea, there's
a saying about the use of the pechori: The pain comes back to
the father. "From me, Se Ri got her strength, she learned
discipline," the father says. "From her mother, she received
grace and wisdom."
Now Pak is the second-best woman golfer in the world, closing in
quickly on Sorenstam. Se Ri's motivation is intense and unique.
"I play golf for my parents," she says. "Not for anything else.
Not for money, my sponsors, nothing else. Just for my parents.
When I play well, they are so happy." Pak knows that through her
play she has brought great honor and fame to her family in
Korea. She knows that men tried to kill her father and, in an
indirect way, her play now is retaliation, a way of protecting
him. Se Ri knows that when her father first took her to amateur
events in Korea, she was treated shabbily because of the
family's working-class roots and because of her father's former
life as a kkangpae. Her play avenges that hurt too. When she
came to play in the U.S., she was ready to win for two reasons:
Because she was accustomed to winning, having already prevailed
in dozens of amateur events and six pro tournaments in Korea,
and also because she plays for something bigger and more
important than herself.
Pak does not lead the life of a typical 20-year-old. On Sunday
night she was in the back room of a restaurant, New Seoul
Garden, in suburban Detroit along with her parents, the
omnipresent Happy and maybe two dozen Korean men, loud and
jovial and drawn to the Pak family by their sudden celebrity.
Pak wore snug-fitting black jeans and a black T-shirt and looked
nothing like she does on the golf course. She looked young,
successful, chic and tired. "Fifty percent of me is really
happy, because now I am a top player," she said, "and 50 percent
of me just wants to rest, make friends and learn this country.
But now I have no time to make friends. I need somebody to talk
to, but my parents always say, 'Be careful, be careful.'
Everything is golf. Inside my heart, I don't feel free. I want
to say everything. But everything I do, I must ask my parents.
That's the Korean way."
Earlier in the day, when Pak had finished her play, she talked
to the Korean press, signed autographs and then retreated to the
privacy of the locker room, where she stayed for a long time.
Outside, in the warm midday sun, her father covered for her.
Burton and Sorenstam were still on the course, slugging it out,
but hundreds of spectators were milling about the clubhouse,
hoping for a glimpse of Pak, drawn to the tournament for just
one reason. Joon Chul posed for pictures, granted interviews and
signed autographs. He looked like a contented man. Every so
often, he looked up to see if his daughter had reappeared.
"[Pak] has some things to learn," says Sorenstam. "She's driven,
but also self-centered."