Last month at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, Lorie Kane waited
behind the 18th green as Se Ri Pak put the finishing touches on
the 64 that gave her a four-shot win in the season-opening
YourLife Vitamins LPGA Classic, her first victory in more than a
year. After Pak had putted out and was climbing the hillside
toward the scorer's tent, Kane pounced on her friend and frequent
practice partner and hugged her. "I guess you're back--with a
vengeance!" Kane said as they dissolved into laughter.
Check back later this season to see if anyone else on the LPGA
tour is laughing. Pak's win may have been a shot across the bow.
Correction, the victory may have been an approaching iceberg. All
the off-season talk had centered on Karrie Webb of Australia and
whether anyone could end her two-year reign as the queen of
women's golf. Right idea, wrong country. After the first four
weeks of the LPGA season, during which Pak and, three weeks ago
at Doral, Grace Park won tournaments, the question is, Can anyone
challenge the Koreans?
Pak and Park, who outplayed Webb to win the Office Depot on the
famed Blue Monster, both have the buttery swings, the maturity
and the killer instinct to be dominant players, and they're not
alone. Pak became a national hero on the order of baseball's Chen
Ho Park when she beat Jenny Chuasiriporn in the '98 U.S. Open,
which millions of Koreans watched on television in the middle of
the night. That triumph sparked a golf frenzy that has led to an
invasion of the LPGA tour by a dozen Korean players. "When Se Ri
came over and did so well, it stirred up interest for the sport
in Korea," says tour veteran Sue Ginter. "It's like when Dorothy
Hamill got all those American girls to go into figure skating and
get their hair cut like hers."
Two more Koreans worth keeping an eye on are Mi Hyun Kim, the
5'1" mighty mite with the John Daly swing, and Jeong Jang, who
has one of the purest putting strokes on tour. Kim, 24, was the
LPGA's rookie of the year in '99 and has already won three times.
Jang had five top 10 finishes in 2000, her first season,
including a playoff loss to Kim in the Safeway Championship.
February 19, 2001
Se Ri, though, is the complete Pak-age. This year she has a new
coach, a new caddie, a newly tightened swing, a new putting grip,
an improved short game and, after a frustrating 2000 season, a
new hunger. All those things make Pak, 23, a much better player
than the rookie phenom whose first two victories, in '98, were
back-to-back majors and whose first two seasons produced eight
Park, 21, won the U.S. Amateur in 1998 and played for two years
at Arizona State. Her one-shot victory over Webb at Doral
solidified her reputation as a closer. This female Terminator hit
only three fairways and found eight greenside bunkers in the
final round but scrambled for pars on 10 of the 11 greens she
missed in regulation. Struggling with her driver, Park busted a
good tee shot when she needed it most, on the demanding 18th, a
385-yard par-4, then knocked a five-iron onto the green and
two-putted to hold off Webb. In Park's other LPGA victory, last
year's Kathy Ireland Greens.com Classic, she outdueled Hall of
Famer Juli Inkster. You get the idea. Park's a gamer. By her
count she's won 62 amateur and pro events and is undefeated when
holding a lead going into the final round.
When she was 11, Park moved from Seoul to Hawaii to live with an
aunt and improve her game. Three years later she relocated to
Phoenix. After leaving Arizona State in May '99, she played her
way onto the LPGA tour by winning five events on the Futures tour
later in the year. Her rookie season was interrupted, though, by
a stress fracture in her ribs that sidelined her for more than
Park has an elegant, athletic swing, as well as loads of
personality. When she turned pro, she eschewed agents, but
recently she signed with Michael Ovitz's AMG, which also
represents basketball's Jason Kidd and tennis's Pete Sampras.
Nevertheless, Park wants to be more than just a pretty face. "I
want to be at the top. I want to win," she says. "That's the only
thing I'm thinking about."
All the Korean players are under the constant scrutiny of their
country's press. (A half-dozen Korean journalists routinely cover
the LPGA.) Pak had been the favorite back home, but Kim shot past
her last year, thanks in part to a Korean TV special that showed
Pak dining on lobster in her spacious house in Orlando while Kim
was shown sharing modest meals with her parents in the back of
the van they use to travel on the tour.
Pak, though, is the superior player, and the stories of her
father's extreme training measures, such as forcing her to sleep
in a cemetery or to hit balls barefoot in the snow, are the stuff
of legend back home. "For any up-and-coming player, whatever Se
Ri used to do is the standard," says Paul K. Lee, a Los
Angeles-based writer for The Korea Times. "If Se Ri squatted and
duckwalked half a mile or slept in a cemetery, that's what you
do. From the outside looking in, the fathers of these players
look pretty pushy, but you don't hear the kids complaining much."
South Korea has a population of 45 million and only 135 golf
courses, but the game is so hot there that every LPGA tournament
is televised. "If you had asked us our five-year plan five years
ago, I guarantee you Korea wouldn't have been in the equation,"
says LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw. "Now Korea may be the only
country in the world where the LPGA is more popular than the PGA
Tour. We'd be foolish not to take advantage of that."
Hot starts by Pak and Park have added fuel to that fire, and both
players look ready to keep turning up the heat. Pak's smartest
step was hiring swing coach Tom Creavy, a former staffer at the
David Leadbetter Golf Academy. Pak had sown the seeds of her
winless 2000 when she fired Leadbetter before the '99 season,
saying that he didn't give her enough attention. She got by that
year on a few sessions with Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods's coach,
but her game slipped last season.
Pak is a technical player in the mold of Nick Faldo, someone who
needs to know what she's doing with her swing. Not having an
instructor was a mistake. In September she hired Creavy, who
couldn't pass up a chance to work with a world-class player. "It
was a no-brainer," he says. "She's one of the top players out
here, but she didn't play that way last year. She was willing to
work as hard as she needed to get back on top."
From Thanksgiving on, while many players relaxed, Creavy and Pak
practiced six days a week for at least three or four hours a day.
(She also worked out four or five times a week to improve her
strength and conditioning.) Creavy filmed her swing every day.
"She likes to feel everything is in position," Creavy says.
"She's not overly mechanical, but she likes to know all her ducks
are in a row. We never left the range or putting green until she
Pak's swing looks effortless, like a practice swing, and is
reminiscent of Patty Sheehan's. "For Se Ri it's not the round of
golf, it's each individual shot," says her caddie, Colin Cann,
who had looped more than five seasons for Annika Sorenstam and
last year carried Park's bag. "Perfection is what makes a great
player, like a Ben Hogan. All great players like to win, but they
also want to hit perfect shots. Se Ri expects perfection. That's
what drives her."
Cann is a meticulous caddie who got along well with Sorenstam, a
stats fanatic who overlooked no detail. He was less of a help to
Park, a feel player who doesn't want an overload of information.
When he went to Orlando a week before this year's season opener
to get a read on Pak's game, he was surprised that she couldn't
tell him exactly how far she flies the ball with each club. They
immediately went to the range, where Pak hit 20 shots with each
club so that Cann, using a range finder, could zero in on her
yardages. Says Cann, "After Annika, I was used to someone who
uses numbers and strategy, someone who is sensible and wants to
play smart golf. Se Ri reminds me of Annika in that way."
Pak's biggest weakness was her short game, so Creavy went to work
on it. "She tended to play only one type of chip shot," he says.
"She needed to be more versatile, so we threw in a few other
ones." The payoff came in Orlando. With an expanded repertoire
she chipped in three times, twice during the 64. "I was with her
from September to December, and she didn't chip in once," Creavy
Another piece to the puzzle fell into place only two days before
the YourLife Vitamins. Pak, who had slipped to 126th on tour in
putting in 2000, was having difficulty judging the speed and the
slope of the greens. Creavy had her switch from a cross-handed
grip to a conventional one, which, he says, gave her more feel.
She rolled the ball superbly at Grand Cypress. At the 15th hole
during the final round, after Penny Hammel had made a 20-foot
putt to tie for the lead, Pak nailed a 10-footer for birdie to go
ahead for good. That's the sort of thing Pak was not doing in
"Last year I had a hard time with not winning," she says. "It was
confusing. I pushed myself to try to win, but there was nothing I
could do to make it happen. I needed to find a coach and a caddie
and get more consistent. I kept telling myself that 2001 is
coming, keep working for the new season."
With Pak and Park and the rest, 2001 looms as a monster year for
Korean golf--and maybe for the LPGA too. Ask Votaw how long before
his tour gets as much TV coverage in the U.S. as it gets in
Korea, and he can't help but laugh. "Well," he says, "Seoul
wasn't built in a day."