Se Ri Pak will always be remembered as one of golf’s most important pioneers. With her victory at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, she inspired the wave of Korean women who have swept over the top rank of the LPGA.
Pak remains the standard. Indeed, when she qualified for the Hall of Fame at age 29 with 24 LPGA victories, including five major championships, she became the youngest person ever to be inducted (Young Tom Morris, who died at age 24, was elected posthumously in 1975).
Pak’s most influential victory took place at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisc. Seemingly beaten when she hooked her drive into the water on the 72nd hole, Pak stood in knee-deep water to fashion a recovery back into the fairway, then wedged to 10 feet and made the putt to gain a playoff berth against amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. The next day, Pak fell behind early but rallied late to tie after 18 holes. Finally, on the 21st hole, she made an 18-foot birdie putt to become the youngest Women’s Open champion ever.
Pak also won the McDonald’s LPGA Championship that year, giving her LPGA Rookie of the Year honors and making her – along with Juli Inkster – one of only two woman ever to win two majors in her first season.
"I've given them the confidence to come out here, I think of them like my sisters."
Pak would go on to win two more LPGA Championships, as well as the 2001 Women’s British Open. She also won the 2003 Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average, the first Asian player ever to do so.
In 2007, she won the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic for the fifth time, becoming only the third woman in LPGA history to win the same tournament five times. Her playoff record of 5-0 is an LPGA record for most wins without a loss.
Pak also competed in a men’s professional event at the 2003 SBS Super Tournament on the Korean Tour. She finished 10th, becoming the first woman to make the cut in a professional men’s event since Babe Didrickson Zaharias did so in 1945.
Pak was born Sept. 28, 1977 in Taejon, South Korea. Blessed with powerful legs, Pak was a track star before being introduced to golf at age 14 by her father, a former professional baseball player in Korea and a demanding taskmaster. The regimen he designed for his daughter included runs to the top of their high-rise apartment building through the stairwell and working out without shoes in the snow. As an amateur, the teenage Pak won 30 tournaments. After turning professional in 1996, she won six of 14 tournaments on the Korean LPGA tour, finishing second in seven others. In her first six seasons on the LPGA Tour, Pak finished second on the money list four times and was third once.
Se Ri Pak won the Rolex Rookie of the Year award for the 1998 season.
Despite all the rigor she endured, Pak has always been known for her bright smile and friendly disposition. However, the imposed stress of her journey and the pressure of carrying South Korean hopes took its toll. In late 1999, she was hospitalized for exhaustion. In 2005, Pak completely lost her game, her best finish a tie for 27th. Injuries played a role, but the root cause was burnout from a life she said “needed balance.”
Pak regrouped and came back strong, winning the 2006 McDonald’s LPGA Championship in a playoff with Karrie Webb for her fifth major.
A national hero in Korea, where children’s books are written about her, Pak is proud of being the trailblazer dozens of Koreans have followed to the LPGA.
“I’ve given them the confidence to come out here,” she said. “I think of them like my sisters.”