By Rhonda Glenn, USGA
||Caddie Tom Creavy and Se Ri Pak discuss options on the Old Course Friday. (John Mummert/USGA)
Bethlehem, Pa. – The 1998 battle seems a long time ago, but it remains fresh in the minds of those who saw it and its repercussions are still being felt in a big way.
Eleven years ago this month, Korea’s Se Ri Pak, a poised professional, battled the pride of Timonium, Md., Jenny Chuasiriporn, a young amateur, for the U.S. Women's Open championship at Blackwolf Run, in Kohler, Wis.
The two met in a playoff. Head to head. Eighteen holes that became 20. Winner take all.
Chuasiriporn clinched her spot with a twisting 40-foot birdie putt that magically found the hole on the 72nd green. When the ball dropped, her eyes widened and she slapped her hand over her mouth.
Spectators, among them former U.S. President George H.W. Bush, went wild.
Moments later, Pak nearly pulled her tee shot into a water hazard on the same finishing hole. But Pak hit an expert iron shot and salvaged a matching 72-hole score of 290.
The next day, the two dueled in an 18-hole playoff that was extended to 20 holes before Pak gained the edge with a 15-footer for a birdie and the win.
It’s hard to overestimate just how important Pak’s victory was to the Korean fans.
Only the two competitors – Pak and Chuasiriporn – can know what their playoff was really like, but the 8,000 fans who came to watch that day raised the week’s total attendance to a record 123,000.
More important, however, all of Korea was watching, glued to their television screens in the early morning hours. And with them thousands of little girls, who began to idolize Pak.
Today, many of those little girls have grown up, and there are 36 Korean women playing in the 2009 U.S. Women’s Open at Saucon Valley Country Club. A handful are older than the age of 26, but most are in their late teens and early 20s, inspired by Pak's dramatic playoff victory.
Jiyai Shin, 21, is a winner on the LPGA tour and she was one of those little girls who watched Pak win the 1998 Women’s Open.
“It's amazing for me, because before Se Ri Pak won, I never know the sport of golf, and then Se Ri Pak won,” said Shin. “I watch it on TV. Oh, it looks like very interesting game. So after Se Ri Pak won, my friends, Inbee Park, many players started golf. She's our idol, actually.”
Park, 20, is the defending Women’s Open champion and when she won last year she became the youngest winner in history, just as Pak was in 1998. Park was mesmerized by Pak’s 1998 victory.
“I was very much inspired by Se Ri Pak,” said Park. “At that time, not just me, but a lot of young girls like me picked up golf and wanted to be like her. It was very early in the morning. I was half asleep.
“There were replays, a thousand times after that,” Park said. “I was able to watch it quite a few times. I liked what she did for the people in Korea. They were all happy with her and I think that’s what really inspired me. My dad…had been begging me to play golf two years before she won…After I watched that, it looked like very, very much fun and I really wanted to do it.”
Sometimes Pak is paired with her fellow countrywomen, occasions that mean so much to the young players.
“I’ve played a couple of times with her,” said Park of her rounds with her heroine. “It felt a little bit weird, because I never thought that I would actually be able to play with her in such a short period of time and be at the same level of competition. So, I felt very honored and I was very proud of myself that I actually made it all the way here.”
“The first couple of years it was a little bit of pressure,” Pak said, referring to the Korean youth movement on the LPGA. “If I was the one leading I needed to show them the right way to go. For some reason that’s kind of hard for me, but now it’s fun to watch them. They give me the energy because I’m still here practicing, playing, and when they see me they remember the long ago time that I was their age. Now it’s a fun time to hang out with them and I’m kind of friends with them.”
Now 31, Pak remains a contender on the LPGA tour. She finished second in the State Farm Classic a few weeks ago. She still bombs it out there and was 15th in driving distance this week, averaging slightly more than 260 yards off the tee. She was 5 over par after a first-round 76 at Saucon Valley, but struggled in the second round and seemed destined to miss the cut at 76-77-153.
But Pak is also thinking about her future, and beginning to make plans for life after competitive golf. In a year or so she plans to start her own golf academy in Korea. She wants to help young players such as Park and Shin, the players she inspired not so very long ago.
It’s a dream Pak has, but many of her dreams have already come true, as have the dreams of the hundreds of little girls who watched her win.
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her with questions or comments at email@example.com.