When Inbee Park and Lydia Ko tee it up at this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, they can pay tribute to another player in the field who paved the way for their success. With Park qualifying for the LPGA Hall of Fame and Ko going for a third consecutive major championship at Sahalee Country Club in suburban Seattle, Se Ri Pak will be smiling and bowing out at the same time.
Pak, 38, announced her retirement from fulltime LPGA play earlier this year, effective at the end of 2016. She joined the LPGA in 1998 and made a great first-year impression by winning the McDonald’s LPGA Championship (first of three wins in the event currently sponsored by KPMG) and taking the U.S. Women’s Open in a dramatic 20-hole playoff with amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. At age 20, she was the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Open (since surpassed by 19-year-old Park in 2008). In June 2007, at age 29, she became the youngest living entrant into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
More pertinently, when she won in 1998, Pak was the only South Korean on the LPGA. Just 10 years later there were 45 South Koreans playing the LPGA. Park was age 10 when Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run and inspired to play golf by the win. Ko was just age 1 in 1998, but her parents were big fans and encouraged their daughter to pursue golf.
Her goal going forward is to open a school to train athletes, not necessarily to become better athletes, but how to mature off the playing fields.
“She’s the first of everything in Korean women’s golf,” Park said. “She started the road for us. We never thought playing on the (LPGA) Tour would be possible for us. But she kind of proved we can do it.”
“My three biggest women idols were Se Ri Pak coming from my Korean background, and Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie,” Ko said. “… Se Ri, to be playing in the same field as her and get paired up with her was great. So they've been an inspiration, and what Se Ri did to bring golf into Korea, I think she's just one of the first people that really was the founder of golf in Korea and what made it today.”
Pak has won 23 times in her LPGA career, including a 6-0 record in playoffs. Her last victory came in 2010 and she has been hampered by injuries in recent years. However, she finished T27 at the LPGA Volvik Championship two weeks ago, her best finish this season and the best since a T10 at the March 2015 Kia Classic. So there may be some life remaining in her game as she plays the first two rounds this week with Jessica Korda and Laura Davies.