Olympic gold medal winner Inbee Park may never be as beloved in South Korea as Se Ri Pak, but Park is revered in new ways now.
While Park was one of “Se Ri’s kids,” inspired by Pak’s iconic U.S. Women’s Open victory at Blackwolf Run 18 years ago, Park is making her mark in a way that radically departs from Pak, in a way that ought to especially please Pak.
In some ways, Park is breaking the Korean mold.
Pak, 38, will always be embraced as the pioneer who paved the way for South Korea as a force in women’s golf, as the inspiration to so many young girls who wanted to grow up to be just like Se Ri.
Pak will always be beloved in ways no other player will in South Korea, because Pak was the original, and because her excellence radiated beyond golf in South Korean culture. Pak’s breakthrough came with her homeland reeling in hard times. She became a symbol of excellence beyond sport, an example of how determination and hard work can overcome the steepest odds as Pak was the only Korean playing the LPGA when she broke through at Blackwolf Run.
“The Korean economy at the time was very, very bad,” said Ho Jun Sung, a reporter for Korea’s JTBC Golf. “Politicians and media used Se Ri’s win as motivation for the country.”
The timing of Pak’s victory lifted more than golf in Korea. She was a beacon of hope in sport, commerce and industry alike.
Sean Pyun, the LPGA’s managing director of international business affairs, said his Korean parents still have a photograph of Pak in their living room.
“I don’t think they have a photograph of me in there,” he cracked.
When Pak, 38, announced earlier this spring that she was retiring, she said she was proud of her legacy, of the excellence she inspired. But she also said she lives with regrets. She regrets the monster she created back home, the monster ambition, the monster expectation and the singular monster focus that drove young prodigies to spend sun up to sundown on driving ranges.
Pak said that singular focus left her feeling like an incomplete person, and she doesn’t want young South Koreans missing out on a larger life the way she felt she missed out.
“I took care of my golf,” Pak told GolfChannel.com back in the spring, when she announced her retirement. “I didn’t take care of myself.”
It’s why Pak is dedicating her retirement years to opening a school to train athletes for more than sport. She wants to train hearts, minds and souls, too.
While there’s rampant speculation over whether Park will retire sooner rather than later – she says she has no plans – Inbee is living the larger life Pak wants young South Koreans to live. Inbee is even talking about wanting to start a family within the next couple years.
Inbee is a bit of an anomaly among South Korean women in the way she approaches the game. Park doesn’t hit golf balls until her fingers blister. She doesn’t spend sunrise to sunset on the range. She probably spends less time on the range than any other South Korean playing the LPGA today.
“When Inbee was No. 1 in the world, I used to joke with her,” said 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion So Yeon Ryu, one of Park’s closest friends on tour. “I used to tell her, `Inbee, you may be No. 1 in the world rankings but if they calculated that based on time spent practicing, you would be last in the rankings.’”
Brad Beecher, Park’s caddie, said it’s a matter of Inbee being so smart and efficient in her work.
“Most Koreans can’t leave the course after a round without going back to the range to practice,” Beecher said. “But if there’s nothing she needs to work on, Inbee’s out of there.”
When Park won the Ricoh Women’s British Open last year, Beecher said there was a bit of mystery to Inbee’s game that the younger Koreans were trying to crack. They were curious about what exactly was separating her from the rest of the richly talented Korean contingent.
“The other coaches and fathers, they’re watching her, to relay it to their daughters,” Beecher said at the time. “You’ll spot them out there watching Inbee on tournament days. They aren’t even watching their own daughters.”
Park’s break from the pack in routines and habits has helped her strike a balance in her life that other players envy.
Park married her swing coach, Gi Hyeob Nam, almost two years ago.
“When I hang out with Inbee and her husband, I’m jealous,” Ryu said. “They do everything together.
“They like to play computer games together on their phones. They cook together. If she’s cooking, he’s the helper. If he’s cooking, she’s the helper. They are a very happy couple.”
Stacy Lewis saw the importance of that balance in Park’s life back when Park was making her run at the Grand Slam, when Park won the first three majors of the year in ’13. That was back when Nam was still Park’s fiancé.
“You see Inbee and her fiancé when they are traveling, and they’re always holding hands walking in the airport,” Lewis said back then. “You can tell she’s very happy in her life and happy with her game. More than anything, that’s what is showing in her life.”
Park began working with Nam as her swing coach in 2011. They changed her swing.
“Inbee’s game went to another level,” Ryu said. “She was upgraded.”
Park has had a great short game for a long time, in part because she was more crooked as a ball striker than she liked growing up. She had to putt well to compete when she was younger.
“My ball striking improved probably 300 percent,” Park said of the changes her husband made to her game.
Ryu believes Nam is the big reason Park’s practice is less consuming than most players, and that Park is more efficient in her work.
“Nam is always there when Inbee practices,” Ryu said. “He knows her swing so well and can see things. She can fix things so quickly. She can get as much done in 30 minutes as other players get done in three hours.
“When I joke with Inbee about her practice time, she always tells me, `When I was young, I practiced so much, I don’t have to practice as much now.’”
Ryu says Nam is a great match for Park on and off the course.
“The way he talks to her, he’s so optimistic,” Ryu said. “You can see how relaxed he makes her.”
Na Yeon Choi, the 2012 U.S. Women’s champ and also friend to Park, sees what Ryu sees.
“He isn’t just a husband and coach to Inbee,” Choi said. “He’s a great friend to her, a great supporter.”
What Ryu and Choi see is a balance in Park’s life that Pak would love other South Koreans to emulate.