PHOENIX – Se Ri Pak said hello Thursday upon returning to competition for the first time in nine months, and then she did something she has been wanting to do for three years.
She said goodbye.
After posting a tidy 3-under-par 69 at the JTBC Founders Cup, she signed her scorecard and then stepped in front of a Golf Channel microphone and announced she will be retiring at season’s end.
“Basically, 2016 is my final season, full time,” Pak said.
Pak’s voice didn’t waver, didn’t crack. She marched into the media center after that and told reporters retiring was a difficult decision, but she was just as strong and just as resolute as she answered their questions. But then she put the microphone down, stepped off the stage, and she let her guard down falling into the arms of LPGA commissioner Mike Whan.
When Pak left the room, all the emotions she was holding down started coming up, leaking out one tear at a time. She dabbed her eyes in the hallway.
“This is not about my golf, it’s about my life,” Pak said.
Pak reiterated that she began thinking about retiring three years ago, but she had a big problem. At 35 back then, she didn’t have a clue what she wanted to do with the rest of her life.
She knows now.
When she figured that out, she knew it was time to retire.
Pak says when she looks back at her career, she is proud of what she accomplished, how she became the first South Korean to win a U.S. Women’s Open, how her victory ignited the popularity of golf among young girls in her homeland. She is proud of her 25 LPGA titles, her five major championship victories, how that success won her a place in the LPGA Hall of Fame. She is proud of how her feats inspired a nation to become a women’s golf super power.
“I’ve done everything I can do as a professional, as a golfer,” Pak said.
But Pak, 38, said when she looks back at her career with ruthless honesty, she sees something else, too.
She sees an incomplete person.
“I took care of my golf,” Pak said. “I didn’t take care of myself. My golf, it’s good. As a person, I don’t think I’m good, not good enough.”
Pak says the next part of her life is about addressing this deficiency she feels. It’s about completing herself. But she believes the best way to do this is by addressing the deficiencies she sees in the monster she created back in her homeland. It’s by helping young players make sure they work on completing themselves, too.
Pak would like to open a school to train athletes, but not just train them for sport. She wants to train hearts, minds and souls, too.
Pak believes she can find the fulfillment that she aches for as a person by helping young South Korean athletes find fulfillment as complete human beings.
“Life not all about winning, losing, practicing and then winning, losing, practicing,” Pak said. “It’s balance, feeling right balance. It’s practicing life. I’m still developing myself, and I’m so far behind.”
Pak is a role model. She knows that, but she wants to be an even better role model.
In some ways, Pak feels guilty about the monster she created back in South Korea – the monster ambition, monster drive and monster work ethic. She believes she created monster expectations, too, and she wants to make sure young players don’t let those expectations devour them the way they almost devoured her.
“Se Ri is so good with the young players now,” said Na Yeon Choi, the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open champion from South Korea who calls herself one of “Se Ri’s kids.”
Choi finds it interesting that this new wave of young South Koreans want to talk to Pak about golf, but that Pak always wants to steer the conversation to other places.
“Se Ri sees the young players practicing all day long,” Choi said. “On the road, they’re going from the hotel to the golf course, hotel to the golf course, hotel to the golf course. Se Ri has regrets. She regrets she didn’t have more fun, and she tells these young players to make sure they get out and go places, see things, be with friends. She tells them to take care of themselves.”
The stories about Pak’s worth ethic, how her father trained and pushed her to excellence, echo beyond South Korean borders. A track star before taking up golf at 14, Pak was trained hard by her father to be a champion, often waking her up at 5:30 in the morning to run 15 flights of stairs in their apartment building. He would make her run them forward and backwards. He pushed her so hard to overcome fear, the famous story goes, that he made her stay all night in a cemetery to overcome her fear of them.
Sean Pyun, the LPGA’s Korean-American managing director of international business affairs, says Pak’s influence radiated beyond golf. He says she set a standard that drove men and women in all walks of Korean life. He stood in the back of the media center Thursday fighting emotions while realizing what she meant to him and his parents.
“My parents have a photograph of Se Ri in their living room,” Pyun said. “I don’t think they have a photograph of me in there.
“I know, too, that I wouldn’t be doing what I do if it wasn’t for Se Ri Pak," he said. "I stood in the back of the room tonight realizing that I’ve never really thanked her for that.”
Pak’s grateful for what golf has given her, and she doesn’t take it for granted, but she wants to give back more than golf to the young people who grew up inspired by her. She wants to give them the fuller life she now seeks with them.