Because of her iron mien and machinelike swing, 21-year-old Se
Ri Pak appeared to be the one wunderkind of '98 who was built to
last. Yet at the end of a year in which she won four
tournaments, including two majors, Pak is in free fall.
David Leadbetter's resignation last week as Pak's coach is only
the latest example of how things have gone terribly wrong for
the South Korean sensation. For four months Pak has played
poorly, practiced infrequently and abandoned her fitness regimen
while remaining chained to a frenzied schedule that has left her
exhausted. Once bubbly, she's now uncommunicative and withdrawn,
her appealing smile switching off the moment the spotlight is
removed. At her mostly empty home in Orlando, her best friend is
a beagle puppy she felt compelled to name Happy.
It's not uncommon for golf to eat its young, but Pak's play this
summer gave no indication that she would be devoured in the
autumn. Her apparent zest for the game was such that she once
played in six tournaments in a row and practiced with such
fervor that Leadbetter's most frequent advice to her was to slow
down. All the while she exhibited a mental toughness that seemed
grounded in serenity.
But Pak had been shaped in extreme ways. When she was 16, her
father, Joon Chul, dealt with Se Ri's fear of cemeteries by
making her stay overnight in one. When Pak said tearfully, after
winning the U.S. Open, that this was the first time she had ever
cried, we couldn't help but wonder if her upbringing had been
December 21, 1998
Now Pak is rebelling. Her actions are not yet a cry for help as
loud as those of Jennifer Capriati's or Todd Marinovich's, but
clearly Pak is under too much pressure. She is being squeezed by
Samsung, the South Korean corporation that pays her $3 million a
year and surrounds her with a claustrophobic phalanx of
managers; a South Korean media desperate to balance months of
depressing economic news; and her father, a driven man who says
he developed an uncompromising hardness during his years in the
Pak's Samsung managers, who travel with her in the U.S., report
her activities to their corporate superiors and to her family,
which reportedly angers Se Ri. When Pak succumbed to a viral
infection during her much-ballyhooed return home in October, an
LPGA official was shocked to learn that the biggest concern
among the Samsung minions who filled her hospital room was
whether she would be able to play the next day.
Pak's response has been to shut down and test boundaries.
According to Leadbetter, she seemed uninterested during recent
practice sessions and ignored his advice to work out.
(Leadbetter says Pak is 15 pounds heavier than she was at the
beginning of the year.) At last month's LPGA Tour Championship
in Las Vegas, she took a lesson from Butch Harmon, leading to
speculation that she was about to dump Leadbetter. She also
reportedly began dating.
Pak wants out of the shackles that are retarding her move into
adulthood and taking the joy out of golf. Both of her heroes,
Nancy Lopez and Tiger Woods, were fortunate during the early
phases of their careers to have nurturing parents who allowed
them to live their own lives. Pak can learn from Woods. Since
turning pro, he has made most of his own off-the-course
calls--from blowing off President Clinton's invitation to attend
Jackie Robinson festivities at Shea Stadium to firing his agent
and asking his father not to accompany him to certain
tournaments. Woods has made some mistakes, but despite the
demands of his fame he continues to enjoy his career.
"Se Ri is being pulled in so many directions and is so unhappy
that she's doing some irrational things," says Leadbetter. "I
worry about her. When we spoke on the phone, the last thing I
told her was, 'Get some rest, clear your head, and get your life
in order, dear girl.'"
It won't be easy, and Pak is searching for guidance. At the
recent LPGA awards luncheon in New York City, she eagerly asked,
"Where's Nancy?" Told that Lopez wouldn't be attending, Pak's
response was a soft "Oh."
In the months to come, the more important question she will have
to ask herself is, Where's Se Ri?
Golf Plus will next appear in the Jan. 18, 1999, issue of SPORTS
Says Leadbetter, "The last thing I told her was, 'Get some rest,
clear your head, and get your life in order, dear girl.'"