Five years after retiring, the woman who paved the way for South Korean golfers to dominate the women’s game still exudes an iron determination on the course.
Pak Se-ri addresses the ball before hitting it with a swing as gentle as it was at the height of her career – straight and true.
Pak won the first of her 25 LPGA titles – the 1998 US Open – in her rookie season at the age of 20 as the first Asian woman to win the oldest women’s major.
Their success inspired a generation of South Korean women to follow in their footsteps with golf shoes known as “Pak Se-ri Kids”.
It was a nickname that initially weighed on her and made her feel more like a “sense of burden” than pride, she told AFP.
And golf is perhaps the ultimate individual sport, in which the players have to deal with their own weaknesses and team competitions like the Solheim Cup are rare exceptions than the rule.
“I went to the US just to pursue my personal goal,” she said in her first international media interview in three years. “But at some point my dream became someone else’s too.”
She later began to share her LPGA knowledge with her Korean competitors as her mindset changed “to focus on what kind of role model I could be”.
The “Pak Se-ri kids” phenomenon has persisted and intensified: From 2010 to this year, South Koreans won at least one major every season.
Now, three of the top five female golfers in the world are South Koreans, including number two, Ko Jin-young, with seven Korean nationalities or ancestry in the top 10 – although the country’s male golfers are nowhere near as globally competitive.
– ‘Dedicated to golf’ –
Women’s number four Kim Sei-young, who has 12 LPGA victories, told AFP: “Without her, we wouldn’t even have realized that there was a career path at the US LPGA.
“She is a pioneer.”
Pak attributes the dominance of women to “grueling practice and strong mentality”.
The story goes on
“There are no training time limits for Korean golfers,” she told AFP. “Your golf-life balance is entirely dedicated to golf.”
Western players take a different approach, she believes.
“They do their best at golf where they can. But when they are done for the day they find something else that they enjoy.”
Koreans would see this as a risk to their routine and focus, she says.
But the pressure to succeed and the relentless training program can ultimately be overwhelming.
“Everything is defined by the tournament result and that makes life difficult,” she said. “Burn-out could happen immediately. It did for me.”
After winning the Michelob ULTRA Open in 2004, she missed the cut at her next event and got into a two-year crisis.
“I had just won a competition the week before, but five days later I was a completely different person on the green.”
It wasn’t until the McDonald’s LPGA Championship 2006 – one of five majors on the LPGA tour – that she posted her next win and won a head-to-head playoff with a birdie on the first additional hole.
– Sporty spirit –
Since retiring from the sport, Pak has built successful new careers in both television – coaching celebrities on one show and camping with younger athletes on another – and in business as co-CEO of sports marketing firm Baz International.
It is instantly recognizable: within three holes on a weekday afternoon at the Silk River Country Club in Cheongju, which is hosting the Pak Se-ri Invitational tournament later this month, around a dozen fans came to ask for selfies.
All were granted, with Pak friendly and professional at the same time.
But when a cameraman stood in front of her to film a tee shot, she warned him: “Either you end up in the hospital or you can’t make it alive.”
Pak coached the South Korean women’s golf team at this year’s Olympics for the second time, but they failed to repeat the gold from Park In-bee in Rio 2016 and came home without a medal.
As a trainer she feels a “heavier responsibility” than as a competitor.
“As a player, you only focus on yourself,” she said, but the main job of a coach is “to help the players get the best out of themselves”.
South Korean Olympic performance was marred by the online abuse of three-time gold medalist An San. Misogynists accused her of being a feminist for having short hair.
But many athletes keep their hair short to avoid competition distractions, noted Pak – as she did herself.
The archer had “trained for the Tokyo Games for five years this time and her fate could be decided in three to five minutes,” she added.
And its critics “don’t understand the spirit of sport”.
kjk / slb / leg