It’s not the victories, although with 25 career titles, including five major championships, South Korea’s Se Ri Pak already has a place in the LPGA Hall of Fame. And, although providing luxuries that once seemed the wildest of dreams, it certainly is not the nearly $12 million in career earnings plus addition wealth from sponsor and endorsement deals.
All nice, but, in the big picture that is Pak’s golf career, those accomplishments are only building blocks of something far bigger and more significant than making birdies.
“I never expected it to be happening this way,” she said.
That’s what makes it so important.
Jackie Robinson, the American baseball great who knew a lot about leaving a legacy, once observed that “a life is not important except in the impact it has on others’ lives.”
In that case, Pak just might be the most important woman golf has ever known.
Fact is, as the LPGA returns to South Korea this week for the HanaBank Championship, it is easy to argue that no one -- not even Tiger Woods -- has single-handedly done more than Pak to alter golf history.
When she came to the LPGA as a rookie in 1998 -- an unknown and uncelebrated foreigner with no English skills -- Pak was the only South Korean player on tour. Now, by igniting a passionate blaze across her homeland with rookie-year victories in both the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women’s Open, Pak is directly responsible for altering the power base of an entire sport.
From zero to 38 in 14 years. That’s the percentage of South Koreans found in the top 50 of the Rolex World Golf Rankings then and now. When Pak arrived on tour, she was the one and only South Korean. Today, 19 Korean golfers rank among the top 50 women in the world. Forty-two Koreans are on this year’s LPGA roster, more than any other country outside the U.S., and well beyond Sweden, the next closest with 13.
Also, since Pak’s 1998 breakthrough, nine majors have been won by her countrywomen, including three of the four this season.
Significantly, one of those wins belongs to world No. 3, Na Yeon Choi, who in July claimed the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisc., the same course where Pak won in 1998 and setting the fire that now roars.
Choi remembered the moment like it was her own. She was 9 years old at the time of Pak’s victory. With Se Ri on the weekend leaderboard, the broadcast was aired on Korean television --live during wee hours of the morning and replayed regularly for months afterward.
“I think that was like so big for all the Korean people,” Choi said. “Even some people who didn't play golf. I think we had bad economy in Korea at that moment, but she won on the LPGA Tour and that was amazing for all the Korean people.
“So I think after she won in July, even until like December, I watched it on the TV. So I remember everything that feeling, and I really want to continue that feeling to the Korean people.”
Suddenly, the foreign game that South Korean barely recognized had a local hero. Little girls wanted to be like Se Ri. Overnight, golf became important.
“I think all the Korean people think Korean couldn’t win,” Choi said. “But she did. After she won, I think all the Korean people have bigger dream than before.”
Now look. Jiyai Shin has two majors, including this year’s Women’s British Open. U.S. Women’s Open winners since Pak’s breakthrough include Birdie Kim, Inbee Park, Eun-Hee Ji, So Yeon Ryu and Choi.
The merry band of Korean talent has become the self-proclaimed “Seoul Sisters,” with Pak, who turned 35 on Sept. 28, blazing the trail.
So captivating has been the Pak-powered South Korean muscle flex, it has inspired the “SeoulSisters.com” Website, designed and operated by, of all people, an America golf fan from Seattle, who admits he has never been to Asia.
“I started it in 2002 as a way to get some English language information about Se Ri Pak out there,” said Eric Fleming, a software developer who works the site as a hobby. “It seemed like most of the reporting of the time was on Annika Sorenstam or Karrie Webb and ignored this equally amazing talent. And since I could understand some Korean and was aware of what was being written about her overseas, I thought it would be helpful for fans.”
Now, Fleming’s site charts the results of all South Koreans playing the LPGA and offers message boards for followers to post. But its roots go back to Pak.
“To this day, most of the people who email me or participate on my message board are fans of the Koreans because of Se Ri,” Fleming said. “And for Se Ri, everyone speaks of her in very reverent tones.”
That’s what happens when you lead a revolution that changes the focus of a nation.
For awhile, after Pak’s first U.S. Women’s Open title, she was included in a video montage that accompanied the South Korean national anthem each morning on television. Along with solders marching, and workers performing, there was Pak removing her shoes to hit a shot from the edge of water on the final hole of her 1998 win.
“The people respect me,” Pak said in a whopper of an understatement. “They talk and because I am getting older, they call me ‘The Legend.’ I’m happy to hear that. In Korea they talk about I am the pioneer.”
And so much more.
“She is so proud of the Korean players, and that she was a rallying point for them when they are here, said Rhonda Glenn, USGA manager of communications and the face of the Women’s Open media room. “She talks to them a lot and tells them ways to do things and how to behave and how to deal with the press. So she’s taken on a huge responsibility. Along with still being a great player in her own right, she’s also a leading light to those young Korean players.”
Pak’s legacy, however, will go far beyond the tee box.
Among Korean companies that have invested heavily in golf are Hyundai, LG and Samsung. Two Korean television networks are devoted to golf.
There are some 500 golf courses, 4,000 driving ranges and 9,000 certified teachers. An active and ambitious Korean Golf Association has 3,600 players between ages 8 and 20 registered in its national program -- 1,600 of them female.
“My comment would be that she certainly inspired a generation of South Korean players,” said Judd Silverman, tournament director of the Jamie Farr Classic, an event Pak has won five times. “And she not only inspired young South Korean women to follow her path, she has brought sponsorship dollars to the LPGA.”
Not to mention, there would not be the LPGA HanaBank Championship in South Korea without Pak.
“I’m really happy and honored to be part of the LPGA tournament in Korea,” Pak said. “There’s going to be a lot of expecting … a lot of pressure and a lot of tension but I’m happy about it.
“I’ve very happy. There is nothing really I need more. Of course, I’m still trying to win, but it’s not all about that now. I’m happy to be out. It’s totally different mind.”
During her July return to Blackwolf Run for this year’s U.S. Women’s Open, Pak reflected on the impact of her victory 14 years earlier and admitted being concerned by the responsibility she believed came with the title. She worried about handling her status correctly.
“It’s everybody. They say, ‘I‘m playing golf because of Se Ri,’ ” Pak said of her fellow South Koreans. “I had a lot of pressure because I don‘t know (if) I’m leading the right way. That was the biggest (concern). Now I feel really proud and very happy. I’m very proud of them, of my country.”
The feeling is mutual.
She made it happen.
Topics: Pak, Se Ri