History is a stingy educator. Only time reveals its lessons. When Se Ri Pak defeated Jenny Chuasiriporn in a 20-hole playoff at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open who knew the pair of 20-year-olds had thrown open the door to golf in the Republic of Korea and Thailand while also shattering attitudes about age in the game? That championship 25 years ago at Blackwolf Run in Kohler Wis., is on the short list of the most impactful events in the history of golf.
In Korea, young girls watched on TV as Pak, a professional from Seoul, planted the seeds for their dreams. One of those was 10-year-old Inbee Park, who decided that week she wanted to play golf and moved to the United States two years later to hone her game. She improved quickly, winning the 2002 U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship and finishing second in 2003 and 2005. In 2008, at 19, she set a record that still stands as the youngest winner of the U.S Women’s Open (Yuka Saso matched it in 2021).
Also watching on TV in Korea were two other 10-year-olds who went onto win major championships – In-Kyung Kim, winner of the 2005 U.S. Girls’ Junior, and Jiyai Shin, who finished T-5 in the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open at Oakmont Country Club. Before Pak, no Korean had won the U.S. Women’s Open. Since 1998, 10 women from that country have hoisted the trophy a total of 11 times, with Park adding a second title in 2013.
In Thailand, where golf was barely an afterthought in the 1990s, the joyful effort by Chuasiriporn, an amateur from Maryland who played at Duke University and whose parents were Thai immigrants, helped set the stage for the country’s emergence as a power in the women’s game. Moriya Jutanugarn, the 2013 Rolex Louise Suggs LPGA Rookie of the Year, was 4 years old in 1998 and her sister, Ariya, who would win the 2011 U.S. Girls’ Junior and the 2018 U.S. Women’s Open, was 3.
In 1998, there were no women from Thailand on the LPGA Tour. Now there are six in the top 100 of the Rolex Rankings, including No. 6 Atthaya Thitikul, and there will be seven Thais in the field at Pebble Beach for the 78th U.S. Women’s Open beginning July 6. Korea has 22 players in the field.
And no matter where they came from, a generation of girls learned they could compete at golf’s highest level. Pak and Chuasiriporn paved the way for teen stars like Michelle Wie, Aree and Naree Song (both from Thailand), Yani Tseng, Lexi Thompson, Morgan Pressel, Lydia Ko and Lucy Li. This year, there are 24amateurs and 14 teenagers in the field of 156.
That one glorious week in Wisconsin shattered beliefs about what’s possible.
“After Se Ri won, it was on TV every day and they made advertisements of her hitting it out of the water,” Inbee Park said about the remarkable shot Pak hit on the 18th hole of the playoff that forced extra holes. “I watched it a lot of times and I said to my parents, ‘I can do that.’”
A lot of Korean girls said that to their parents. And, quite likely, a lot of parents in Thailand also took note.
“I would love to think that I was an inspiration to girls in Thailand,” said Chuasiriporn, who is now Wanalee Betts and lives near Richmond, Va., with her husband Richard, a doctor, and their two sons, working as a nurse in family practice. “I think there was an impact from my performance at Blackwolf Run. I have heard some parents say their kids were up late watching.”
Blackwolf Run played extremely difficult that week and Pak and Chuasiriporn tied after 72 holes at 6-over-par 290. There had not been a higher winning score since 1976 and there has been none higher since.
“The course was very tight and the rough was very long and the greens were small and firm,” Pak remembered. “If you missed a little bit there was no chance. When we finished tied I was thinking, ‘Well, we have time for one or two holes.’ And then they told me it was an 18-hole playoff tomorrow. I said, ‘What!’ I was a rookie. I didn’t know. I had never played an 18-hole playoff. And then it took us 20 holes.”
On the 72nd hole, Chuasiriporn, flashing a Nancy Lopez-like smile, holed an improbable 40-foot birdie putt that eventually got her into the playoff when Pak missed an 8-footer to win in regulation. In the playoff, they came to No. 18 tied and Pak pulled her drive into the penalty area left of the fairway.
After pondering whether to take a penalty drop, Pak removed her shoes and socks and waded into the water. She blasted out with a sand wedge, knocked an 8-iron onto the green and escaped to extra holes when Chuasiriporn missed an 8-foot par try.
They both made par on the first extra hole and on the 20th hole Chuasiriporn missed an 18-foot birdie then watched Pak convert from 15 feet to claim the championship.
“Going into Blackwolf Run, I really wanted to win,” Pak said. “I had played the U.S. Open the first time the year before [finishing T-21 at Pumpkin Ridge in Oregon] and I saw what a big deal it was and I said, ‘I really want to win this event.’ Back then, there was not the communication there is today. It wasn’t until a week after I won that I learned that all of Korea was watching. It was unbelievable to me.”
For Chuasiriporn, who came into Blackwolf Run with no expectations, the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open was both the highlight of her life in golf and a springboard to a happy life away from the game. Since 2008, she has played only 27 holes, although she occasionally takes her sons to the driving range. After Duke, she studied nursing at the University of Maryland and earned a master’s degree at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“I guess it’s nice being young and in a blissful moment,” Betts said. “It was literally just a dream come true. In fact, I had never dreamed that anything like that could happen. On the first hole of the playoff, I remember looking down and seeing my hands shake. I never had that before. On the sixth hole, I hit it into the brush and made triple bogey. But my brother, Joey (her caddie), was really key to keep me calm and keep me grounded.”
While the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open victory is part of a World Golf Hall of Fame career for Pak in which she had 25 LPGA victories, including five majors, it was the beginning of a road that took Chuasiriporn in another direction. Later that year, she finished second in the U.S. Women’s Amateur to Korean-born Grace Park and was on the victorious 1998 USA World Amateur Team in Chile. She helped Duke win the 1999 NCAA championship then, after struggling on mini-tours for several years, changed course in her life.
“What if I won?” Betts asked rhetorically 25 years later. “I went back to college for my senior year, but nothing was ever the same again – fortunately and unfortunately. But it helped me transition into the next chapter of my life. The stress really got to me after that. I never performed that well again. Dealing with turning pro, dealing with sports agents. I would encourage everyone to go to college for four years. Those were my favorite years. To be with teammates and get a college education. My huge emphasis was on getting a college education. It gave me all the opportunities I have now.”
For Betts, golf was a journey that taught her much about herself and led to a personal and professional path that has brought her much happiness.
“I’d say it worked out perfectly,” she said. “It was good to go through that process. My heart wasn’t in it. It’s a lonely sport. I came out of it realizing I needed to do what I wanted to do. My mom came from Thailand and was a nurse. She worked very hard and she discouraged me from pursuing it, but I kept coming back to it – nursing. I just knew that’s what I wanted to do.”
Pak uses the road she traveled to mentor young girls. She was captain of the Korea women’s team when golf returned to the Olympics in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, and now she spends much of her time in her native country, working with young players and teaching them about the challenges ahead. In 2020, she was the recipient of the Bob Jones Award, the USGA’s highest honor.
“Things are a lot different now,” she said. “There was so much focus on me back then. There were so many demands and I did as much as I could to make so many people happy. But Nancy Lopez told me, ‘You can’t make everyone happy. You have to learn to say no.’ By the end of the 1998 season I was totally mentally and physically passed out.”
Pak won four LPGA events in 1998 and was Rolex Rookie of the Year. In October, when she returned to a hero’s welcome in Korea, the long year finally took its toll and she ended up hospitalized for exhaustion. That is part of the lesson she teaches younger players: Don’t make it all about golf.
“I tell the players to think about yourself and try to find a good balance with the golf and the life,” said Pak. “I had no one to teach me and now I want to help them as much as I can.”
After the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, Se Ri Pak became a Hall of Fame player and Jenny Chuasiriporn became Wanalee Betts. In that regard, both are winners. They not only were part of an epic championship that inspired girls worldwide, but they also took away valuable lessons to pass down to the next generation. The impact of that week at Blackwolf Run 25 years ago continues being felt as history reveals its lesson through the passage of time.
Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who has covered the LPGA Tour for more than 30 years.