KOHLER, Wis. – Se Ri Pak is more than an LPGA Hall of Famer.
She ranks with the 13 founders of this tour in that she is one of the LPGA’s true pioneers, one of the game’s real trailblazers.
With her U.S. Women’s Open victory at Blackwolf Run in her rookie year in 1998, Pak inspired the opening of a South Korean gateway to the tour.
Count So Yeon Ryu, the defending U.S. Women’s Open champ, among the legion of “Se Ri’s kids,” young players inspired to play by Pak’s victory here 14 years ago.
“When I was young, I just wanted to hang out with my friends on the golf course,” said Ryu, 22. “After Se Ri won the U.S. Women’s Open, I really got interested in golf.”
Ryu’s victory is among the 93 that South Koreans have won since Pak’s victory here in ’98. Ryu’s victory is among the 13 majors South Koreans have won since then.
“They are making their own dreams come true,” said Pak, 34. “I guess I opened the door, gave them more confidence about the move forward.”
Watching Pak walk through a South Korean contingent upon arriving at an LPGA event is like watching royalty enter a throne room. The adulation and reverence is overwhelming. Pak’s sought out by so many South Korean players.
“That’s the hardest thing in being who she is out here,” said Mark Wuersching, Pak’s caddie. “It’s the responsibility she feels, the interruptions, the distractions. Se Ri gets 40 girls a week wanting to say hello to her.”
Weursching says Pak has learned to balance her demands better this year as she bids to return to the winner’s circle, but he says she has taken a special interest in guiding Ryu, an LPGA rookie this year.
Pak, though injured then, accompanied Ryu in a practice round at Blackwolf Run back in May. She gave Ryu tips on how to play the course.
“In 2010, when I played with Se Ri in Korea for the first time, I couldn’t even speak, I was so nervous,” Ryu said. “But after the round, she told me, `You’re a really great player. You keep focusing on your goals, and please enjoy your golf. You have a chance to play the LPGA.’”
When Ryu beat Hee Kung Seo in last year’s U.S. Women’s playoff at The Broadmoor, Pak stayed to walk along the gallery ropes and watch.
“I was shocked,” Ryu said. “She is my hero, and she was out there supporting us. I felt like my hero is watching me, I want to play really great. It’s a great memory for me.”
It’s also a common refrain among South Korean players.