Pak getting grip on golf success

LPGA: After a spectacular rookie season, South Korean Se Ri Pak confronts the dual demands of pressure and notoriety on the women's tour.

June 02, 1999|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

WEST POINT, Miss. -- Considering everything she accomplished as a rookie last season, maybe anything Se Ri Pak did this year would have constituted a sophomore jinx.

Yet the signs were there even last summer and fall that Pak was heading for problems.

After the last of her four victories that included both the U.S. Women's Open and LPGA Championship -- starting with the Open, three came in a stretch of four weeks -- there were rumors and indications of burnout.

Going into the 54th Women's Open, which begins here tomorrow at the Old Waverly Golf Club, Pak is not yet back. In fact, she is barely being mentioned among the favorites.

That happens when you go from second on the money list with a rookie record $872,170 to 62nd this year with $59,669 in 11 tournaments. That happens when your best finish this season is a tie for 11th at the Office Depot back in late January.

Yet Pak says that she is happier now than she was when she was becoming the Tiger Woods of women's golf.

"Right now, many people ask me what happen because they think about last year," Pak, 21, said yesterday. "Right now, kind of pretty quiet. Actually I feel a lot better than last year. I learn more and my game is more strong."

Pak understands that many blame her slump on the turmoil that ensued after her winning streak.

It began to fall apart for Pak on a trip home to South Korea last September. There to receive the country's highest honor given to an athlete, the Order of Merit, Pak was hospitalized for exhaustion. Pak was reportedly pushed by her sponsor, Samsung, to play in some high-paying exhibitions despite her physical condition.

Pak later fired her teacher, David Leadbetter, who was widely credited with getting her ready for the LPGA Tour with grueling all-day sessions on the range. She also fired her manager, Steven Kil.

"Sometimes players need coach because we have to check our swing," said Pak. "Sometimes we have to fix it ourself because coaches cannot be with me all the time."

Pak said she fired Leadbetter because he was not around enough after she turned pro, promising to be with her at various tournaments and then calling at the last minute to say he couldn't come. She has yet to hire another coach.

As for Kil, Pak said that the former Korean journalist was ill-prepared to handle the demands made on his suddenly famous client.

"He worked pretty hard. He is pretty nice people. But I find out he doesn't know what he is doing," said Pak, who has since signed with International Management Group, the Cleveland-based company that also represents Woods and more than 100 other players.

Dealing with change

Kil, who still works with Leadbetter and is representing a number of other young Korean players, including rookie-of-the-year candidate Mi Hyun Kim, said here yesterday that his relationship with Pak remains "hostile."

"I don't want to think about it," he said. "It was kind of a surprise attack. I'd like to forget about it. For David, she was like a daughter. For me, she was like a sister. We didn't try to hurt her."

About the only person who remains from last year's entourage is caddie Jeff "Tree" Cable, the burly former college basketball player who helped Pak's transition from relative unknown to one of the game's biggest stars.

"She's playing fine," Cable said yesterday as he waited for Pak by the putting green. "She hasn't put it all together at one time. It's going to happen. People expect her to just jump into the same mode she was in last year. She continues to work very hard."

Perhaps a trip back to the Open will rejuvenate Pak's game. It was along the steep hills and small, treacherous greens of Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis., that Pak backed up her wire-to-wire victory at the LPGA Championship six weeks before.

After seeing certain victory turn into an 18-hole, sudden-death playoff when then-amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn of Timonium sank a 45-foot putt on the final hole of regulation, Pak said she was a little confused by the USGA's playoff format.

"They say I have to go to a playoff, I say, `OK, what 16[th] or 18[th hole]," recalled Pak, laughing at her naivete. "The caddie said, `No, no you have to play tomorrow morning, to play 18 holes.' I said, `My head is getting headache.' "

Pak had all but conceded defeat to Chuasiriporn when she saw her own drive on the 18th hole find its way into a creek. She then found that the ball was barely playable and, at Cable's suggestion, took off her shoes. She closed her eyes after hitting her shot and listened for the crowd's reaction.

"I can feel they are screaming good news," she said. "So I feel I still have a chance. After I finish the 18th hole, I feel that I know that the trophy is pretty close to me."

Pak said that, in her mind's eye, she could see the winning 15-foot putt fall before her blade hit the ball, a premonition that Chuasiriporn said she had as she sat watching from the side of the green. Pak would go on to become the most dominant player in golf this side of Hale Irwin.

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