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Yes Se Ri
Her three victories in a month left no doubt that LPGA rookie Se Ri Pak is the genuine article. This week she can make history
by Michael Bamberger
Se Ri Pak is sitting at a large, round table at Szechuan Empire, a restaurant in New Rochelle, N.Y., eating dinner with her manager, her parents and two South Korean businessmen, new friends from the old country. All the conversation is in Korean. It is a Friday night in mid-July, and Pak has made the 36-hole cut of the JAL Big Apple Classic easily. She is still wearing her work clothes and a Samsung baseball cap, brim backward, the way kids do. She's 20 and two thirds of the way through a rookie season that's reminding people of early Nancy Lopez, in bell-bottoms, and early Tiger Woods, in red shirts. Pak has already won the McDonald's LPGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic, where she shot a 61. But on this day there was no magic, just a 69.
A golfing machineno brain, no emotion, automated excellenceremains the elusive, unattainable ideal. Ben Hogan was close to being one. Nick Faldo and Bernhard Langer have had stretches of mechanical ingeniousness. But Pak may turn out to be the closest thing yet to a human version of Iron Byron, the ball-testing machine. Her swing, for which the first prototype was developed only six years ago by her father, is hypnotically robotic, thoroughly repeatable and extremely beautiful. On Sunday she won again, taking the Giant Eagle LPGA Classic in Warren, Ohio, by a stroke. This week the lab experiment continues. Pak will try to win her third major of the year, the du Maurier Classic at the Essex Golf & Country Club, in Windsor, Ont., across the river from Detroit. No golfer, male or female, has won three majors as a rookie. In fact, only two players, Hogan, in 1953, and Pat Bradley, in '86, have ever won three pro majors in a season.
A computer in Seoul at the world headquarters for Samsung, the global electronics behemoth that sponsors Pak, figures that her chances of winning this week are 65%. That meansbased on a calculation involving stimpmeter speeds, blood-pressure readings, putts-per-round statistics, celestial alignments, etc.if the tournament could be played three times, Pak would win twice. That's the problem when you turn sports into science. The tournament will be played just once this year.
You don't need a computer printout to know that Pak is sizzling. Her victory last week was her third in four weeks and fourth this year. Only one LPGA rookie has ever won more: Lopez, who won nine tournaments in 1978, the year after Pak was born. Lopez, 41, is the first woman golfer Pak became aware of, through TV, and now the two are friends, in a mother-daughter kind of way.
Lopez speaks of Pak the way Jack Nicklaus speaks of Woods, with appreciation and selflessness. "What's happening now definitely reminds me of what was happening to me 20 years ago," Lopez says. "When she won the U.S. Open, I was crying with her. The little amateur played great, but I was rooting for Se Ri, my fellow professional."
On July 6, when Pak defeated that amateur, Jenny Chuasiriporn, also 20, in a 20-hole playoff to decide the U.S. Open, she was unprepared for her emotional response: Pak saw the intense happiness of her parents, and she cried. She said it was the first time she had ever cried. Her father was surprised by the tears. Joon Chul, 47, is a successful building contractor in Daejun, 100 miles south of Seoul, and has been a prominent amateur golfer in South Korea. He taught Se Ri to play golf and to control her emotions.
When she was 16, Se Ri, the middle of three daughters, was terrified of cemeteries, so Joon Chul did the obvious thing. He pitched a tent in a cemetery near their house, and over a three-month period he and Se Ri visited the cemetery as often as five times a week, sometimes spending the night. At dusk Se Ri would practice chip shots and bunker shots in the dirt by a reservoir bordering the cemetery. At night the father would tell his daughter the scariest ghost stories he knew. "I wanted to develop confidence and toughness," Joon Chul says, explaining his fathering and golf-tutoring methods.
The fact is, Pak has more emotional detachment from her play than any other golfer you can think of. It seems almost unnatural to see a player strolling down fairway after fairway and across green after green and almost never showing anything. Judy Rankin, the TV commentator and former pro, is fascinated by Pak and her composure. "Her emotions are not part of the mix," Rankin says. "Controlling your emotions, not being open about your emotionsAsian culture views that kind of control as a strength. It's incredible, seeing Americans take to this girl from South Korea."
That's what was happening on Sunday, in Warren, which is midway between Pittsburgh and Cleveland. Middle America was traipsing after Pak. She was in the penultimate threesome, with Annika Sorenstam, the dominant player of the last three years, and third-year pro Wendy Ward. The group must have had a gallery of 5,000 people, including Pak's parents, her manager and several Samsung executives. Pak's play is distinctive for its power and accuracy, and her appearance is equally striking. On Sunday she was wearing black and white from head to toe, but what you couldn't stop looking at was her thighs. They are, to be indelicate but truthful, thick and strong, like Nicklaus's. They provide the foundation for a swing that brings to mind the sweet action of Ernie Els, who, like Pak, lives in Orlando and takes lessons from the same scientist who recreated Faldo in the late 1980s, David Leadbetter.
The team around Pak is extraordinary. Last week her father, who claims genetic responsibility for Se Ri's thighs and instructional responsibility for her cross-handed putting, was often conferring with executives from Samsung. (They are renegotiating Pak's contract, a 10-year, $10 million deal. The new pact is expected to pay her more than $3 million a year for at least three years.) Pak's mother, Jeong Sook Kim, walking every hole with her daughter, was unmistakable on Sunday with her billowy sky-blue pants and delicate floral sun umbrella with lace around the edge. In the fairways, striding down the middle, was Pak's caddie, a very large man named Jeff Cable, a.k.a. Tree, a 10-year tour veteran who had never won before getting Pak's bag. At slow moments during the tournament, Pak leaned against Tree and took mininaps. ("Mr. Jeff, you are a famous man," a South Korean TV reporter said to Tree the other day. "Look into the camera and say hello to Korea.") Everywhere you looked, there was Pak's manager, Sung Yong Kil, a.k.a. Steven, 28, the hardest-working man in sports. He serves as a translator for the Pak family, charts every shot Se Ri takes, wipes down chairs for her before she sits in them, assembles the family for group pictures that he takes himself, and answers questions about Se Ri's personal life. "She has no boyfriend," he says. "She has no time."
Asked on Sunday night if she had done anything fun during her week in Warren, Pak smiled, shook her head no and said, "I just practice, sleep, eat, practice." Oh, and play 54 holes in 15 under par, with rounds of 65, 69 and 67, to finish a stroke ahead of Dottie Pepper. Pak is now first on the LPGA money list, with $768,211.
Pak celebrated on Sunday nightcelebration is a foreign concept to Pak, but she's in America nowby having Chinese takeout from the same place she had all week, the Sunshine Buffet in Niles, and ordering up a fruit platter from room service. For several hours there was a stream of visitors to her cluttered hotel room: her parents, the Samsung executives, Korean journalists. Pak spent the evening watching TV, experimenting with putters and playing with her beagle puppy, Happy.
Pak is well-liked by her fellow golfers, who find her modest about her success and see her trying hard to connect with people. The week after winning the Open, Pak went up to one of her new friends, tour rookie Jen Kangas, and tried out one of her new phrases. "Let's go for dinner," Pak said. "On me."
The scene in South Koreathat's something Pak is unprepared for. She's already the most successful professional athlete the country has produced and the subject of presidential proclamations. She is not eager to go home and observe firsthand the bedlam she's creating. Her plan is to play the du Maurier this week, skip the Star Bank Classic, play the British Open, skip a week, then play three straight tournaments in the U.S. She wants to avoid returning home for as long as possible. Or as her manager said on Sunday night, "She is not going home."
For the next 20 years or so, home for Pak, Lopez predicts, will be inside the ropes. "That's where I felt most free," Lopez says. "That's where I could do exactly what I wanted."
Se Ri Pak, just starting, knows exactly what Lopez is talking about. Her goal is simple: She wants to be the best female golfer in the world. But Pak is already thinking about her next life. She wants to come back as a golfer, but this time as a man, and do it all again.
"The little amateur played great [in the Open]," Lopez says, "but I was rooting for Se Ri."
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