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Stoking the embers

Se Ri Pak
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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – The words lift Se Ri Pak, but they stab at her, too.

“When I was young, Se Ri was my hero,” South Korea’s So Yeon Ryu said moments after defeating fellow countrywoman Hee Kyung Seo Monday to win the U.S. Woman’s Open in a playoff. “Se Ri was all of our heroes.”

The words have become a mantra in South Korea. Pak’s kids keep multiplying, her story as a pioneer keeps resonating with yet another winner this week detailing how she was motivated by Pak’s American success. After Monday’s triumph, Ryu told the familiar story of how she watched Pak’s breakthrough victory at the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in ’98. It’s staggering how gifted young South Koreans keep coming along to tell that story.

“Se Ri was like a god,” Ryu said.

The adulation moves Pak, but it can also overwhelm her.

Being looked upon as a golf god isn’t easy, especially when today’s youth can make you feel so mortal.

“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.”

The hardest part of being viewed as a golf god is wanting to play like one again.

Despite a disappointing finish in the final round, Pak waited around to follow Ryu and Seo in their playoff. Pak was there in the end, racing onto the 18th green celebration to help soak Ryu in champagne.

Pak was so proud, but there were other feelings.

At 33, while Pak understands she created something larger than herself, she quietly struggles with the legacy.

As much as Pak wants to help her young protégés, she also wants to beat them. She’s on fire to beat them. She wanted to be out there with Ryu and Seo in that playoff.

That’s the back side of the Pak story Monday. Her past glory isn’t only fueling South Korean kids. It’s fueling Pak again, fanning old embers into a fire again.

Where Pak once seemed burned out by the game’s demands, she burns once more to win another major.

“This stirs her,” Wuersching said of the All Korean Playoff. “She appreciates the respect that’s shown her, and it’s important to her to show respect back, but she also wants to play golf for herself now. She has more desire now than when she was 20. She wants it badly again, and it’s her biggest issue. It hurts her in the biggest events.”

Pak’s Hall of Fame record includes 25 LPGA titles, five of them majors. She ended a three-year winless spell with a victory at the Bell Micro LPGA Classic last year. Her last major championship triumph was the LPGA Championship five years ago.

With a left wrist injury aggravated in Wednesday’s practice round, Pak played this U.S. Women’s Open on pain killers. After getting herself into contention halfway through the championship, she closed with 77 and 76.

“Days like today and yesterday, they really hurt her,” Wuersching said. “She was probably over prepared this week. She wanted it too much.”

Ryu’s victory brought terrific memories of Pak back to life. It sent reporters rushing to Pak to ask her about the South Korean pipeline she created. Where once there was only Pak at the top of the game, now there’s 18 South Koreans among the top 50 in the Rolex World Rankings, more than twice the number of Americans.

“I just opened the door for them to play, to give them more confidence, it was the beginning,” Pak said. “Now, they aren’t afraid to come out and play with the best golfers in the world on the LPGA. I’m very proud of them.”

Ryu’s victory ended a drought that was getting a lot of attention back in her homeland. It was the first victory by a South Korean this year. That fact just highlights the monster expectations Pak created. Since Pak became the lone South Korean on the LPGA in ’98, South Koreans have won 90 LPGA titles. They’ve won 42 times in the last five years.

Just about every South Korean who wins an LPGA event points to Pak. Just about every South Korean who joins the tour wants to meet Pak, to be paired with her in an event.

“Sometimes, I feel a lot of pressure, just to make sure I’m leading the right way, the better way,” Pak said. “They are doing really, really great without me much helping. They are so different than I was.”

When Pak joined the tour, she spoke little English. She didn’t have other South Koreans to pal around with. She says she’s impressed with how the younger players are learning English today, how well they’re handling pressure.

“I’m very proud of them,” Pak said.

Pak burns to keep making her prodigies proud of her. She also burns to show them she can still beat them in the big events.