Pak, the second-best player on the LPGA Tour this year, is victim of a two-sided problem: Her great play has been overshadowed in this, the Year of Annika, and she is part of a growing group of Asians who are slowly taking over the tour, but have had trouble connecting with the fans they're supposed to entertain, especially in America.
It's 'not just in the U.S., but worldwide,' Pak said, when asked about her goals of becoming famous. 'That's one of the big goals, always, because my parents told me always to have the biggest goal, the biggest dream.'
Pak, Annika Sorenstam and the next 28 players on this year's money list wrap up this odd 2003 season beginning Thursday at the LPGA Tour Championship at Trump International Golf Club.
Pak holds a .07 points lead over Grace Park in the race for the prestigious Vare Trophy, which goes to the player with the best scoring average. Sorenstam actually leads Pak (68.91 to 69.94), but the world's top-ranked player can't win the trophy because she will not play the minimum 70 rounds on tour this season.
And so it goes for Pak, who has won three tournaments this season - behind only you-know-who - and who, just like Sorenstam, captured her country's imagination by playing with the men. She even made the cut, something Annika couldn't do, although it was on the Korean tour, which isn't nearly as prestigious or competitive as anything Sorenstam, Suzie Whaley (PGA Tour) or Michelle Wie (Nationwide, Canadian Tours) played on this year.
By winning this week and winning the Vare Trophy, Pak would get the two points she needs to gain entrance into the World Golf Hall of Fame, yet even that leaves her short of famous in the United States.
Smiling, polite and gracious, her English is not so strong. Thus, she remains an unknown quantity in a country that loves its stars. She is part of a growing list of up-and-coming players from the Far East, many of them with doting fathers who follow their every move and have been accused of illegally coaching and helping their daughters on the course. The issue has been discussed in a pair meetings with LPGA commissioner Ty Votaw this year.
'It's an evolving process,' Votaw said. 'The cultural differences are something we have to continue to be mindful of on both sides.'
Among the three Koreans directly behind Sorenstam on the money list (Hee-Won Han is fourth and Park, a self-described 'Americanized' Korean who attended Arizona State, is third) Pak may be the one with the most to lose, or gain. When she won six tournaments in 1998, she sparked a golf craze in her home country. This year, Koreans have won seven of 30 LPGA events, compared to just six for the Americans.
'You play well, you do well, some people will get jealous,' Pak said, explaining some of the lukewarm reception some Koreans get in America. 'We're trying to make it the happiest day for all the fans, whatever we can to have more fans in the LPGA.'
Meanwhile, Sorenstam has become a darling in the public, and much of it can be traced back to her performance at the Colonial. When she jokingly buckled her knees after that first, harrowing tee shot, she became more than just another golfer. Her emotional response over the two riveting days, and her ability to talk about it, helped turn her into a star.
'Everyone wants you to go out there and be like Nancy Lopez,' she said. 'That was one of the first times I felt I could go out there and be myself.'
Meanwhile, her play has been beyond stellar. Despite the all-consuming pressure of her history-making appearance in the Colonial, Sorenstam still managed to win two majors and six tournaments overall this season. She leads Pak by about $350,000 on the money list despite playing in nine fewer tournaments.
While Pak was grinding it out last week in Mobile, Ala., Sorenstam was in Singapore, playing with Retief Goosen in the 'Tiger Skins' game. Next week, Sorenstam will become the first woman to play in the stateside Skins Game, an annual Thanksgiving week event; she'll round out a foursome with Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara and Phil Mickelson.
Pak, meanwhile, will wind down and gird herself for 2004. If she does well this week, she will finish in the top three on the money list for the fifth time in the last six years. Stateside stardom, however, is still a long drive away.
'I can't do anything to try to be a star,' Pak said. 'My goal is doing my job, and doing it well. That's No. 1. Being a star is the second thing.'
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