BIRMINGHAM, Ala - World War II changed America in many ways, one being bringing women into the workforce. There was Rosie the Riveter in factories and female baseball players had a league of their own. In 1946, the year after the war ended, the first U.S. Women’s Open was played and a half-century later, Se Ri Pak used that event to change women’s golf not only for America, but for the world.
The 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run looms larger with each passing year. Twenty years on, the 20-hole playoff won by Pak, a 20-year-old pro from Korea, over Jenny Chuasiriporn, also 20 and an American-born amateur from Duke University whose parents were from Thailand, comes into focus now as the beginning of both the global explosion of golf and the youth wave that has swept over the game.
Pak, who had won a dozen times on the Korea LPGA by 1998, burst into prominence seven weeks before the U. S. Open when she won what is now the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship wire-to-wire. It was the first of her five career major championships and the first of her 25 LPGA wins. But the Open was different in that it was televised back to Korea.
A generation of Korean girls watched and were inspired. Among the 10-year-old glued to the tube were In-Kyung Kim and Jiyai Shin, both of whom would become LPGA major winners, and Inbee Park, who has two U. S. Women’s Opens among her seven majors, including 2008 when, at 19, she broke Pak’s record as the youngest champion.
“After Se Ri won, it was on TV every day and they made advertisements of her hitting it out of the water,” Park said. “I watched it a lot of times and I said to my parents, 'I can do that.'" A lot of Korean girls said that to their parents.
The duel between Pak and Chuasiriporn captured the imagination of a global audience. Blackwolf Run played extremely difficult and Pak and Chuasiriporn tied after 72 holes at 6-over-par 290, one stroke better than Liselotte Neumann. There had not been a higher winning score since 1976 and hasn’t been a higher winning score since.
“The course was very tight and the rough was very long and the greens were small and firm,” Pak says. “If you missed a little bit there was not chance. When we finished tied I was thinking, ‘Well, we have time for one or two holes.’ And then they told me it was an 18-hole playoff tomorrow. I said, ‘What!’ I was a rookie. I didn’t know. I had never played an 18-hole playoff. And then it took us 20 holes.”
Not only were the competitors compelling, so was the competition. On the 72nd hole Sunday, Chuasiriporn, flashing a Nancy Lopez-like smile, holed a 40-foot birdie putt that got her into the playoff when Pak missed an 8-footer for the win. In the playoff, they came to No. 18 tied and Pak pulled her drive into the water hazard left of the fairway.
After deliberating for several minutes as to whether to take a penalty drop, Pak took off her shoes and socks and waded into the water. She blasted out with a sand wedge, knocked an 8-iron onto the green and escaped to the sudden-death playoff when Chuasiriporn missed an 8-foot par try.
They both made par on the first extra hole and on the second hole Chuasiriporn missed an 18-foot birdie try then watched as Pak won the title with a 15-footer.
“Going into Blackwolf Run, I really wanted to win,” Pak says. “I had played the U.S. Open the first time the year before [finishing T-21] and I saw what a big deal it was and I said, ‘I really want to win this event.’ Back then, there was not the communication there is today. It wasn’t until a week after I won that I learned that all of Korea was watching. It was unbelievable to me.”
Pak was captain of the South Korea women’s team when golf returned to the Olympics in in 2016 and now she spends more of her time in Korea, working with young players. Before Pak, no Korean had won an LPGA major. Now, 16 different Koreans have won a combined 29 majors, including eight of the last 13. U. S. Women’s Opens.
“Things are a lot different now,” she says about the challenges for young players. “There was so much focus on me back then. There were so many demands and I did as much as I could to make so many people happy. But Nancy Lopez told me, ‘You can’t make everyone happy. You have to learn to say no.’ By the end of the 1998 season I was totally mentally and physically passed out.”
Pak won four LPGA events in 1998 and was the Rolex Rookie of the Year. In October, she returned to Korea to a heroes welcome, the long year finally taking its toll as she ended up hospitalized for exhaustion. That is part of the lesson she teaches younger players: Don’t make it all about golf.
“I tell the players to think about yourself and try to find a good balance with the golf and the life,” Pak says. “I had no one to teach me and now I want to help them as much as I can.”
Not only does an entire generation of girls in Korea owe Se Ri Pak a debt of gratitude, but all of women’s golf does – in fact, all of golf. Pak ignited the global expansion of the game and on that day 20 years ago, Se Ri and Jenny tore down the barriers of age as well. It was truly a turning point for golf, the beginning of a new era.