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 Fair Kroger Classic, where she shot a 61. But on this day there was no magic, just a 69.
Shortly after being seated, before the cold sesame noodles were served, Pak's father, Joon Chul, his voice stern and loud, his eyebrows narrow, revisited his daughter's golf-course blunders. Se Ri was attentive, impassive. She did not blink. Now she's having dessert, a single fortune cookie. She unfolds the paper message. Her English is fair and improving, and she struggles not at all with the words: "You are competitive and analytical by nature." Recognizing the truth in this message—a Westerner would say it was delivered by luck, an Easterner by fate-she smiles. Not the glowing, toothy smile she shows in triumph. This expression is more like the hint of a smile. A glimmer. Enough to show you a brain at work Enough to remind you what her play makes you forget: Se Ri Pak is a golfer, not a golfing machine.
A golfing machine—no brain, no emotion, automated excellence—remains the elusive, unattainable ideal. Ben Hogan was close to being one. Nick Faldo and Bern-hard 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 means—based 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.
Last Saturday night in Warren, on the practice green at Avalon Lakes Golf Course, Pak was visibly upset, and Lopez was there to counsel her. Pak's unhappiness had nothing to do with being three shots out of the lead. (A hallmark of her game is her indifference to where she stands on the leader board.) It had nothing to do with her putting woes, although her putter had been balky. (The weakness in her game, as it was for Faldo, Langer and Hogan before her, is unreliable short putting.) Pak's unhappiness was rooted in her decency. She was feeling pressure from sponsors to play in the Star Bank LPGA Classic, near Dayton, the week after the du Maurier. Pak wanted to play in the event—Star Bank had granted her a sponsor's exemption last year, before she received her tour card, and she wanted to return the favor—but Dayton would be her seventh tournament in seven weeks. For most golfers, playing three straight weeks turns their brains into mush. Pak was facing one of the first crises of her rookie year when Lopez put her at ease. "You have to remember that you're only 20 years old," Lopez told her. "You have to pace yourself."
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 emotions-Asian culture views that kind of control as a strength. It's incredible, seeing Americans take to this girl from South Korea."