In her homeland Pak's image is on billboards and television, and her exploits are front-page news. According to Korean journalists, she is more popular than Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher Chan Ho Park. More than a dozen Korean writers flew into Wilmington for the weekend. About 100 fans of Korean descent, some carrying the country's flag, followed Pak as she played.
Pak dominated Korean newscasts and newspapers last week. After her win the country's newly elected leader, Kim Dae Jung, sent presidential congratulations. Regular citizens held parties to celebrate Pak's victory, the first in the U.S. by a Korean golfer. "Since our country had its financial problems, Se Ri is even more important to Korea," says her manager, Steven Sung Yong Kil. "They look at her for inspiration. Everyone expects her to be the Number 1 player, and they put a lot of pressure on her. When she goes back to Korea, or even when she eats at a Korean restaurant in America, everyone knows her."
In early 1997 Samsung arranged for Pak to move to Orlando to work with Leadbetter, whom the company paid a six-figure salary, to prepare for the LPGA Q school in the fall. Although Pak was homesick, she thrived on the experience, putting in 12-hour days on the practice range and the course. In July she finished 21st in the U.S. Open, and at Q school she overcame a second-round 76 to tie for medalist with Cristie Kerr.
"I was skeptical at first," says Leadbetter, "but after I watched her hit the ball a few times, I knew she had the stuff. Se Ri has wonderful rhythm and balance, and it makes her swing very repetitive. Her bad shots simply aren't very bad. Along with her talent she has a nearly ideal temperament for golf. She's calm, doesn't berate herself and actually seems to like pressure. She likes the big time."
Leadbetter says Pak does not yet have a good short game because she has spent so much time working on her full swing, and because the majority of greens in Korea are Korai grass and are much slower than most greens in North America, which have grass with finer blades. Leadbetter is sure that Pak will overcome this shortcoming. "As a worker she's in Nick Faldo's class," he says. "I have to make sure she doesn't work too hard."
Pak shares an apartment near Leadbetter's Lake Nona headquarters with Kil, who conducts her business affairs and acts as her guardian. "The hardest part right now for Se Ri is that she doesn't have any friends her own age," says Kil. "She understands this, and she knows she will have some, but when she's not playing golf, her life is hard." As an antidote to loneliness, Pak calls her parents in Korea every day.
Pak's parents, her older sister, Yoo Ri, and other relatives stayed up all night to nervously watch the satellite broadcast of the last round. When Pak sank the final putt, Monday was dawning in Korea, and cheers and tears filled the Pak household. "I'm so overwhelmed that I can't describe my emotions," said Pak's mother, Jeong Sook Kim, "but if Se Ri were here, I'd carry her around on my back."
Among Americans, Pak's closest relationship is with her caddie, 43-year-old Jeff (Tree) Cable, a 6'5" part-time high school basketball coach from Lakeland, Fla., who before Wilmington had been looping on the LPGA tour for 10 years without a win. "Se Ri is a sweet person, but when it comes to golf she's very impatient," he says. "She wants to get there, and she wants to get there now. We play practice rounds on Monday, which is unheard of, and she once hit balls after the final round on a Sunday, which is even more unusual. She gets tears in her eyes when she doesn't play well. I remember after our fourth tournament this year, in Tucson, she looked at me very seriously and said, 'Tree, why I no win?' This week it all came together, and when she got in the heat, she seemed at home."
Even if her English improves and she makes friends, Pak seems destined to live most intensely on the golf course. Her goal this season is to win five tournaments, and she looks forward to showdowns with Sorenstam, Webb, Liselotte Neumann and Kelly Rob-bins. Beyond becoming the best woman golfer ever, she has one other long-term objective: She believes in reincarnation, and in her next life she wants to come back as the top male golfer in history. Like she said, "Me first, then later Tiger."
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