Because of her iron mien and machinelike swing, 21-year-old Se Ri Pak appeared to be the one wunderkind of '98 who was built to last. Yet at the end of a year in which she won four tournaments, including two majors, Pak is in free fall.
David Leadbetter's resignation last week as Pak's coach is only the latest example of how things have gone terribly wrong for the South Korean sensation. For four months Pak has played poorly, practiced infrequently and abandoned her fitness regimen while remaining chained to a frenzied schedule that has left her exhausted. Once bubbly, she's now uncommunicative and withdrawn, her appealing smile switching off the moment the spotlight is removed. At her mostly empty home in Orlando, her best friend is a beagle puppy she felt compelled to name Happy.
It's not uncommon for golf to eat its young, but Pak's play this summer gave no indication that she would be devoured in the autumn. Her apparent zest for the game was such that she once played in six tournaments in a row and practiced with such fervor that Leadbetter's most frequent advice to her was to slow down. All the while she exhibited a mental toughness that seemed grounded in serenity.
But Pak had been shaped in extreme ways. When she was 16, her father, Joon Chul, dealt with Se Ri's fear of cemeteries by making her stay overnight in one. When Pak said tearfully, after winning the U.S. Open, that this was the first time she had ever cried, we couldn't help but wonder if her upbringing had been oppressive.
Now Pak is rebelling. Her actions are not yet a cry for help as loud as those of Jennifer Capriati's or Todd Marinovich's, but clearly Pak is under too much pressure. She is being squeezed by Samsung, the South Korean corporation that pays her $3 million a year and surrounds her with a claustrophobic phalanx of managers; a South Korean media desperate to balance months of depressing economic news; and her father, a driven man who says he developed an uncompromising hardness during his years in the Korean underworld.
Pak's Samsung managers, who travel with her in the U.S., report her activities to their corporate superiors and to her family, which reportedly angers Se Ri. When Pak succumbed to a viral infection during her much-ballyhooed return home in October, an LPGA official was shocked to learn that the biggest concern among the Samsung minions who filled her hospital room was whether she would be able to play the next day.
Pak's response has been to shut down and test boundaries. According to Leadbetter, she seemed uninterested during recent practice sessions and ignored his advice to work out. (Leadbetter says Pak is 15 pounds heavier than she was at the beginning of the year.) At last month's LPGA Tour Championship in Las Vegas, she took a lesson from Butch Harmon, leading to speculation that she was about to dump Leadbetter. She also reportedly began dating.
Pak wants out of the shackles that are retarding her move into adulthood and taking the joy out of golf. Both of her heroes, Nancy Lopez and Tiger Woods, were fortunate during the early phases of their careers to have nurturing parents who allowed them to live their own lives. Pak can learn from Woods. Since turning pro, he has made most of his own off-the-course calls—from blowing off President Clinton's invitation to attend Jackie Robinson festivities at Shea Stadium to firing his agent and asking his father not to accompany him to certain tournaments. Woods has made some mistakes, but despite the demands of his fame he continues to enjoy his career.
"Se Ri is being pulled in so many directions and is so unhappy that she's doing some irrational things," says Lead-better. "I worry about her. When we spoke on the phone, the last thing I told her was, 'Get some rest, clear your head, and get your life in order, dear girl.' "
It won't be easy, and Pak is searching for guidance. At the recent LPGA awards luncheon in New York City, she eagerly asked, "Where's Nancy?" Told that Lopez wouldn't be attending, Pak's response was a soft "Oh."