- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Se Ri Pak had won 22 times on the LPGA tour, including four majors, but she'd never jumped for joy on a golf course. By her own admission, she'd never done much of anything on a golf course that smacked of joy or even fun. But on Sunday it became clear that much had changed when, on the first sudden-death hole of the McDonald's LPGA Championship in Havre de Grace, Md., the rejuvenated Pak leaped into her caddie T.J. Jones's arms after hitting a hybrid club 201 yards. Pak's shot skirted the water guarding the 18th green and stopped within four inches of the cup, leaving her a tap-in birdie. Walking on air, the 28-year-old Pak broke into a grin that few had ever seen from her on a course. The grande dame of Korean golf was back.
No one felt that more keenly than the victim of Pak's heroics, Karrie Webb, another resurgent veteran who had shot a four-under 68 on Sunday to get into the playoff with Pak. Winless last season, the 31-year-old Webb was trying to take her second major championship of 2006 after going four years without one. But Webb, fresh out of miracle shots, was unable to match Pak's birdie on that first extra hole. "I was getting a taste of my own medicine," Webb said, referring to her own jump-for-joy moment, the full wedge that went in for an eagle at the 72nd hole of this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship. "I'm really happy for Se Ri. After I won Kraft, she gave me a hug and said it was good to see me playing well and that now it was her turn, she'd win the next one. And then she went and did it."
Along with Annika Sorenstam, who tied for ninth at the McDonald's, Webb and Pak dominated women's golf in the late 1990s, a point driven home last Saturday when the Hall of Fame trio, which has 122 wins and 21 majors among them, played together in the third round. But for all the attention that historic grouping stole from the ballyhooed young guns of the LPGA, especially a certain winless 16-year-old, you'd have thought that they were named Winken, Blinken and Nod.
It's Michelle Wie's world now, and the rest of us are just living in it. Wie, who finished second in this tournament in 2005, last week tied for fifth, two shots out of the playoff. It was her fifth top five finish in 10 starts in the majors, but she garnered most of the headlines and attracted the largest crowds, and had she putted only tolerably well, she could've won by six or seven shots. How superior was Wie's ball striking? She ranked first in greens in regulation (80.56%) and was the only player to reach the 596-yard 11th in two. But she was a fearful 139th in putting, taking a staggering 126 putts over four rounds.
Wie's struggles with the flat stick actually came to the fore on the Monday of McDonald's week, when her attempt to become the first woman to qualify for the U.S. Open was derailed by the 35 putts she needed on her second 18, a round in which she shot a three-over 75. Wie missed qualifying for Winged Foot by five strokes, and nearly all of them could be accounted for on the greens.
That trend continued in the opening round at Bulle Rock, a 6,596-yard Pete Dye design with subtle undulations on the greens that repeatedly fooled Wie. Since October, in a laudable effort to become self-reliant, she has been reading putts without the help of her caddie, Greg Johnston. Last Thursday, Wie missed six putts of 12 feet or less over the first eight holes. "I was ready to yank my hair out," she said. "I felt as if I played really well but couldn't get anything going."
Wie salvaged the round by birdieing three of her last four holes for a respectable 71, but on a windless day when Nicole Castrale set the course record of 64, it wasn't an ideal start. Teeing off early on Friday, when the course was soft and the air calm, Wie built on her momentum, shooting 68 before a thunderstorm blew in and delayed play for most of the field for five hours. She still needed 30 putts, however, and could easily have gone three or four shots lower.
David Leadbetter, Wie's coach, defended her putting stroke, saying that Wie's woes were the result of switching from the bermuda grass she plays on at home in Hawaii, where Wie recently finished her junior year at Honolulu's Punahou School, to the bentgrass of the East. "Even on the PGA Tour players struggle going from West to East," Leadbetter said. "Her putting stroke is way better than last year. It's more rhythmic. She has learned to control the speed better on lag putts. Under pressure that stroke gets a little slower and more deliberate, and she stands over the ball longer." Leadbetter would like Wie to pull the trigger in about eight seconds; longer than that and too much tension builds in her arms. But his charge, said Leadbetter, "has worked very hard with my wife, Kelly, on developing a consistent routine." In truth, Wie has two putting routines. From 12 feet and in, which is where she has the most problems, she steps up to the ball, peeks at the hole twice and putts without taking any practice strokes. Beyond 12 feet, Wie takes a couple of practice strokes to get the feel for distance.
Nothing she tried seemed to work on Sunday, when Wie torpedoed her chances for her first pro win by taking 35 putts--including a lip-out of a four-footer on 16 that stopped her closing charge (BIG PLAY, page G18)--while shooting a 72. Wie averaged three more putts a round than Pak. "I felt as if I hit every single putt where I wanted to," Wie said. "I felt as if every putt was going to go in."
Wie's day will come, but for Pak, who won her first LPGA Championship at age 20 in 1998, the fear was that her day had come and gone. That year Pak also won the U.S. Women's Open. One of only two South Koreans on the tour at that time, she became an overnight icon in Korea, inspiring a generation of young girls to take up the game. (Thirty-two Koreans are now playing on the LPGA tour.) But their matriarch became a walking cautionary tale as her early success was followed by intense loneliness and burnout. When she wasn't playing golf or practicing golf, she was thinking about golf. Her body breaking down, her competitive spirit crushed, Pak last year came to a glum realization: "I hated golf," she says.