Last month at Grand Cypress Resort in Orlando, Lorie Kane waited behind the 18th green as Se Ri Pak put the finishing touches on the 64 that gave her a four-shot win in the season-opening YourLife Vitamins LPGA Classic, her first victory in more than a year. After Pak had putted out and was climbing the hillside toward the scorer's tent, Kane pounced on her friend and frequent practice partner and hugged her. "I guess you're back—with a vengeance!" Kane said as they dissolved into laughter.
Check back later this season to see if anyone else on the LPGA tour is laughing. Pak's win may have been a shot across the bow. Correction, the victory may have been an approaching iceberg. All the off-season talk had centered on Karrie Webb of Australia and whether anyone could end her two-year reign as the queen of women's golf. Right idea, wrong country. After the first four weeks of the LPGA season, during which Pak and, three weeks ago at Doral, Grace Park won tournaments, the question is, Can anyone challenge the Koreans?
Pak and Park, who outplayed Webb to win the Office Depot on the famed Blue Monster, both have the buttery swings, the maturity and the killer instinct to be dominant players, and they're not alone. Pak became a national hero on the order of baseball's Chen Ho Park when she beat Jenny Chuasiriporn in the '98 U.S. Open, which millions of Koreans watched on television in the middle of the night. That triumph sparked a golf frenzy that has led to an invasion of the LPGA tour by a dozen Korean players. "When Se Ri came over and did so well, it stirred up interest for the sport in Korea," says tour veteran Sue Ginter. "It's like when Dorothy Hamill got all those American girls to go into figure skating and get their hair cut like hers."
Two more Koreans worth keeping an eye on are Mi Hyun Kim, the 5'1" mighty mite with the John Daly swing, and Jeong Jang, who has one of the purest putting strokes on tour. Kim, 24, was the LPGA's rookie of the year in '99 and has already won three times. Jang had five top 10 finishes in 2000, her first season, including a playoff loss to Kim in the Safeway Championship.
Se Ri, though, is the complete Pak-age. This year she has a new coach, a new caddie, a newly tightened swing, a new putting grip, an improved short game and, after a frustrating 2000 season, a new hunger. All those things make Pak, 23, a much better player than the rookie phenom whose first two victories, in '98, were back-to-back majors and whose first two seasons produced eight wins.
Park, 21, won the U.S. Amateur in 1998 and played for two years at Arizona State. Her one-shot victory over Webb at Doral solidified her reputation as a closer. This female Terminator hit only three fairways and found eight greenside bunkers in the final round but scrambled for pars on 10 of the 11 greens she missed in regulation. Struggling with her driver, Park busted a good tee shot when she needed it most, on the demanding 18th, a 385-yard par-4, then knocked a five-iron onto the green and two-putted to hold off Webb. In Park's other LPGA victory, last year's Kathy Ireland Greens.com Classic, she outdueled Hall of Famer Juli Inkster. You get the idea. Park's a gamer. By her count she's won 62 amateur and pro events and is undefeated when holding a lead going into the final round.
When she was 11, Park moved from Seoul to Hawaii to live with an aunt and improve her game. Three years later she relocated to Phoenix. After leaving Arizona State in May '99, she played her way onto the LPGA tour by winning five events on the Futures tour later in the year. Her rookie season was interrupted, though, by a stress fracture in her ribs that sidelined her for more than two months.
Park has an elegant, athletic swing, as well as loads of personality. When she turned pro, she eschewed agents, but recently she signed with Michael Ovitz's AMG, which also represents basketball's Jason Kidd and tennis's Pete Sampras. Nevertheless, Park wants to be more than just a pretty face. "I want to be at the top. I want to win," she says. "That's the only thing I'm thinking about."
All the Korean players are under the constant scrutiny of their country's press. (A half-dozen Korean journalists routinely cover the LPGA.) Pak had been the favorite back home, but Kim shot past her last year, thanks in part to a Korean TV special that showed Pak dining on lobster in her spacious house in Orlando while Kim was shown sharing modest meals with her parents in the back of the van they use to travel on the tour.
Pak, though, is the superior player, and the stories of her father's extreme training measures, such as forcing her to sleep in a cemetery or to hit balls barefoot in the snow, are the stuff of legend back home. "For any up-and-coming player, whatever Se Ri used to do is the standard," says Paul K. Lee, a Los Angeles-based writer for The Korea Times. "If Se Ri squatted and duck-walked half a mile or slept in a cemetery, that's what you do. From the outside looking in, the fathers of these players look pretty pushy, but you don't hear the kids complaining much."