Se Ri Pak is being honored in what’s billed as her final LPGA appearance in South Korea this week.
Pak, who announced her retirement in March, is beloved in her homeland, where she inspired that nation’s rise to power in women’s golf with her U.S. Women’s Open victory at Blackwolf Run in 1998. She is expected to receive a giant sendoff by large crowds beginning with Thursday’s start of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship in Incheon.
How popular is Pak there? LPGA commissioner Mike Whan told Pak at a news conference Tuesday that he will never forget one of his first trips to the Hana Bank Championship, when he watched Pak walk to the first tee with about 15,000 people waiting for her.
“I went over to the starter and said, `Can you just announce if everyone could put their phone away?’” Whan said. “I have that picture in my office, of 10,000 people taking a picture of Se Ri, while somebody said, `Please stop taking pictures.’ That's when I knew that this was more than just a great golfer but this was a global superstar.”
Whan lauded Pak for inspiring more than fellow South Koreans.
“At the LPGA, we have a motto that we use, it’s called `Act like a founder,’ which means like our founders 66 years ago, try to leave the game better than you found it, for the next generation,” Whan said. “We're lucky because nobody has lived that motto more than Se Ri. When you talk about leaving the game better than you found it, Se Ri is the living example.
“Twenty years ago, people thought about golf regionally. Tours were regional. Television was regional. But you jump forward in the era that Se Ri created, women's golf is global. Players come from all over the world. We play all over the world. We're televised all over the world, and most importantly, little girls all over the world grew up watching Se Ri and saying, `I want to do that, too.’
“I've read a lot that Se Ri created a real explosion in Korean golf, but I really think that's too narrow. I think what Se Ri did is wake up all of Asia to this opportunity and created a tour for us that we probably couldn't have envisioned in 1997.”
Pak, an LPGA and World Golf Hall of Famer, has won 25 LPGA titles, five of them majors. She was the only South Korean playing the LPGA full time her rookie year. There are 34 South Koreans playing the tour today.
After this week, Pak, 39, said her life will become devoted to building a sports academy in South Korea, where she intends to create a system for training young athletes beyond athletic skill. She wants to train hearts, minds and souls, too. She wants to teach athletes to avoid the mistakes she made becoming too obsessed with training, at the expense of developing as a total person. She says she hopes this helps her fill some holes in her own life.
Pak said she wants to have the kind of impact Arnold Palmer had outside the ropes.
“I want to address things that I, as an athlete, felt could be improved and could be useful for athletes,” Pak said. “I want to create an environment where athletes can thrive.”
Pak says she expects the week to be a whirlwind of memories.
“I know we have a couple more days to go here, and I'm not even sure that it's going to hit me once we get through this tournament,” Pak said.
It’s bound to hit South Korean golf fans hard, knowing what she has meant to their country.