The past two times the U.S. Women’s Open was played in the Sandhills, Se Ri Pak loomed as a towering presence. In 2001 at Pine Needles, the South Korean star was only three years removed from the U.S. Open win that launched a South Korean golf boom. Back at Pine Needles in 2007, her countrywomen were on the verge of overwhelming the LPGA Tour, with Pak at the vanguard.
As the Women’s Open heads to Pinehurst next month, Pak is just another veteran. It’s hard to believe she’s 36, a phenom turned seasoned professional, among the top 20 on the money list heading into this weekend’s Kingsmill Championship but no longer the dominant force she once was.
“It wasn’t that long ago,” Pak said Tuesday, laughing. “I never actually felt like it was a long time. I won here 10 years ago. I said, ‘Really, 10 years? I knew it was at least five years ago, but 10 years?’ The time’s been flying like that.”
The wave of South Korean golfers she spawned has stabilized; an influx of American and overseas talent has restored international balance to the LPGA. Only two of the top 10 in the Rolex world rankings are South Korean, although they remain a force on tour.
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It’s easier for them. She was alone, isolated, cutting her own path through a different country, a different world. Her road to this point has been a longer one.
“I was rookie from foreign country,” Pak said. “You didn’t see many Korean golfers on tour. Pretty much everything was new for us. New life, new language, new golf course week to week.”
Now her complaints are those of an older generation. She still loves the golf but hates the travel. It’s not the years. It’s the mileage.
Some of the Korean phenoms who followed her example have flamed out within a matter of years after turning pro as teenagers. Yet Pak keeps plugging away in her 17th year on tour.
“She’s going to be out here forever,” Suzann Pettersen said.
Despite more than $12 million in career earnings and becoming the youngest World Golf Hall of Fame inductee at 29, Park hasn’t won a major since 2006, her fifth, or a tournament since 2010. Injuries have played a role, but the influx of talent she provoked raised the bar for everyone, Pak included.
Lydia Ko, the tour’s latest teenage sensation, moved from Korea to New Zealand when she was 6, but not before she had a chance to watch Pak play in person, a memory that has stuck with her. Now Ko, 17, ranks 10 spots higher than Pak on the LPGA money list.
“She’s been a huge influence,” Ko said. “For me, it’s really cool I get to play alongside her sometimes, and I get to see her.”
These days, Pak is a trend-setter turned grinder. It’s a long way from her first days on tour, when she was part of a cabal that dominated – Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Juli Inkster and Pak. From 1998 to 2006, that foursome combined to win 20 of 36 majors.
“It was kind of the four of us, week to week, one shot behind or tied when everybody else was back,” Pak said. “Now we see one player, for one or two years, tremendous, from different countries – Japan, Korea, Thailand, America. It’s a lot different than back then, but it’s really fun to see it.”
Pak’s nostalgia is both touching and ironic. She was so young when she changed the game, the people she inspired caught up with her before her career was over.