Pak's fast success is no stroke of luck Rookie: The LPGA Championship and Women's Open winner has been well grounded in golfing fundamentals in her home country of South Korea.

September 24, 1998|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

KUTZTOWN, Pa. -- The conversation took place two weeks ago, during the third round of the LPGA's Safeco Classic near Seattle. Hall of Famer Patty Sheehan was trying to get Se Ri Pak's mind off the misery of having made three straight double bogeys on the front nine.

"Patty asked Se Ri if she had seen Mount Rainier yet, because one of the reasons she plays the tournament every year was to look at the mountain," recalled Jeff "Tree" Cable, Pak's caddie. "Se Ri said she hadn't seen it, and Patty told her: 'Sometimes you have to look outside the ropes.' She's just so focused all the time."

Pak might have another reason for not being able to see a mountain.

She's been too busy climbing to the pinnacle.

A record-setting year

While much of the Tiger-like mania has dissipated in the nearly two months since Pak's last victory -- the fourth of her jaw-dropping, record-breaking rookie year, and the third in a six-week stretch -- the excitement surrounding the young South Korean continues.

"Carrie had a phenomenal rookie year, but it didn't have the excitement this has. Neither did Annika's rookie year," said Jim Webb, the tour's deputy commissioner, referring to players Webb and Sorenstam.

"People started getting interested when Se Ri won the LPGA Championship," he said here Tuesday while making preparations for this week's First Union Betsy King Classic. "The Open got everybody's attention, the way it ended on Monday."

Pak's 20-hole playoff victory in the U.S. Women's Open over amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn of Timonium is considered by many to be the best event in golf of the year. It also served as a preview of her next performance.

After shooting even-par 71 in the first round of the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic, Pak equaled the LPGA single-round record of 61, followed it up with a 63 and wound up winning by nine shots, tying the tour's 72-hole record of 23-under par. It left at least one fellow competitor in awe of both her talent and temperament.

"I had a chance to observe her closely," Meg Mallon, who won both the LPGA Championship and the U.S. Women's Open in 1991, said after being paired with Pak during her record-tying 61. "I felt like she plays one shot at a time. She never gets ahead of herself. Each shot is like the only shot of the day for her."

Pak's hot streak came after she struggled earlier in the year, when she finished no better than 11th in her first nine tournaments. But Cable and others who have followed her progress from a prodigy who had won 30 times as an amateur to the most successful rookie in LPGA history are not shocked by her success.

Laura Davies, who played with Pak in Asia and Australia prior to her joining the tour, predicted in January that Pak would win "four or five times" this year.

Cable, a 6-foot-5, 275-pound former basketball player at Samford University and the nephew of former Baltimore Bullet Barney Cable, saw Pak at a tournament in South Korea three years ago.

"I thought to myself, 'This girl is very talented,' " said Cable, who was working for Val Skinner and had previously caddied for Baltimore native Tina Barrett in 1994 and 1995. "I thought that if she ever came to the U.S., I'd love an opportunity to work for her. I knew she had what it took to win. But did I think she'd win four times? I'd have been happy with one."

Pak has won $805,700, second only in earnings to Sweden's Annika Sorenstam. If there is any criticism to Pak's game, it is that she plays consistently well -- or flatly. Aside from the times Pak has won, she has finished in the top 10 only twice. Conversely, Sorenstam has won four times and has been in the top 10 in 14 of 17 tournaments overall.

Asked yesterday if her victories have created expectations similar to those for Tiger Woods, Pak said, "There is no pressure at all."

Hero in homeland

When she returns home next month for the first time in more than a year, Pak will be given a ticker-tape parade from the airport in Seoul to the presidential palace, where she will receive the Blue Dragon, a medal considered the nation's highest sports honor. There will be another parade in her hometown of Taejon.

"She's the Joan of Arc of Korea," said Steven Sung Yung Kil, a former golf magazine writer who has worked as Pak's manager since December. "People's morale is very down because of the economy. They look up to somebody like her. She's become more of a heroine than just an athletic figure."

Said Pak, who will turn 21 Monday: "It feels good and fresh. It's something new."

It is even more than Joon Chul Pak envisioned for his daughter. The elder Pak, who makes Earl Woods look like Mr. Rogers, would take then 12-year-old Se Ri to camp out in a cemetery and make her walk home alone. They did this several times a year until she was 16 and had "no nervous," as she said repeatedly at the Open.

Kil said it is not a coincidence that Pak's hot streak came when her parents were in the United States. And while Pak has said that her father's harsh treatment made her cry at times as a child, it toughened her and made them closer. The elder Pak was the first person to hug Se Ri after she made the putt to beat Chuasiriporn.

"My father taught me to be strong," she said yesterday. "I always thought, 'Show your dad you can do it.' You can do anything if you want."

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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