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At the Women's British Open last July, while hacking out of the rough, she hurt the middle finger on her left hand--an injury that she now regards as a blessing from God. "I couldn't play," Pak says. "My doctor said I couldn't even touch a club. It was such a relief. For the first time in my life I could simply rest."
She returned to her hometown of Daejeon, an industrial city 100 miles south of Seoul, and spent the better part of the fall taking long hikes in the mountains with her family. She stayed out late at night with friends, talking and carrying on like a care-free twentysomething.
"I never realized that I have so many friends," Pak says. "Or maybe I simply totally forgot about them. Why did I spend so many years thinking I was lonely?" She even took up photography, her first hobby. "None of it was really a big deal," she says. "It was normal life. But for me I have never had that. I was too busy practicing."
The break also gave her a chance to escape from Sorenstam's towering shadow. It was Sorenstam's relentless excellence that had helped drive Pak to the brink. In 2001 Pak won five times and earned $1.6 million, but Sorenstam banked $2.1 million with eight victories. In '02 Pak was even better, with another five wins, but her achievements barely registered as Sorenstam won 11 tournaments.
"Every single round I was thinking about her," Pak says. "I won so many times, but I could never be Number 1. No matter how hard I worked or how well I played, one person would not stop. It got to the point where I didn't want to see her. I couldn't get rid of her! It was always second, second, second. I was so sick of it, so sick of her. I was trying harder and harder to play perfect golf. I kept pushing myself, but that can't go on forever. I'm a human being, you know, not a machine."
This off-season, with so much time to reflect, Pak finally made peace with the very idea of Sorenstam. "Now when I see her, I tell myself I can do better," Pak says. "I recognize she's a great person in history. She inspires me."
On Sunday, with one gutsy swing and a joyous leap, it was Pak's turn to inspire.