In July, the U.S. Women’s Open returns to Blackwolf Run Golf Course where in 1998, Jenny Chuasiriporn and Se Ri Pak met in a Women’s Open playoff for the ages and altered the path of women’s golf.
At Blackwolf Run Golf Course in Kohler, Wis., 60 miles north of Milwaukee, a great water hazard ran along the left side of the 18th hole, guarding the fairway like a moat. In the first week of July 1998, this shallow body of water, flat as glass, would determine the U.S. Women’s Open. It was a warm week as thousands of spectators surged through the rough, and they shed their colorful windbreakers and tied them around their waists. Hundreds more crowded into grandstands behind the 18th green and covered the hillside above.
More than 120,000 people tramped around the course that week. It was a remarkable turnout in a village where the population was fewer than 1,200. Early in the week, a USGA staff member who had worked at many Women’s Opens had sat in bumper-to-bumper traffic filing off Interstate 43. Some years, only a few hundred spectators attended. The woman watched the cars from Milwaukee, Madison and Racine, and from neighboring Illinois and Minnesota, snaking along the interstate toward Blackwolf Run and she leaned her head on the steering wheel and cried.
As the first round got underway, a man on a tractor feverishly mowed down waist-high grass in an adjacent pasture. There was parking for 15,000 cars, but state police had radioed the course saying cars were jammed on the interstate and more parking was needed.
A grinning Herb Kohler, owner of the course, stood in the newly-mown lots directing parking attendants who furiously waved the cars in.
“Cars followed the mower like they follow a snow plow,” said Lisa Luigs, championship manager in 1998. “Earlier in the week, security also called to tell us someone was scalping tickets in front of the admission gate.”
Ticket scalping? At the Women’s Open?
The U.S. Women’s Open has been played since 1946. If it was sometimes sparsely attended, it still evolved into the world championship of women’s golf. To professionals, it was a “major” with a rich purse guaranteeing the winner a top place on the money list. To amateurs, it was Brigadoon. At the Women’s Open, amateurs glimpsed a world where everyone else looked like a great player. The professionals were toughened by playing for a living and with so much at stake, they gave no quarter. The Simon-pure seldom had a chance. Only one amateur has won the Women’s Open, Catherine Lacoste, of France, in 1967. Another amateur, Barbara McIntire, an American, lost a playoff for the title in 1956.
In 1998, the two key players were professional Se Ri Pak and amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. They were 20 years old then. They are 34 now. Pak achieved Hall-of-Fame distinction on the LPGA Tour at the age of 30. She is delighted to reminisce. Chuasiriporn’s life is far removed from golf and her recollections are more complex. When a friend recently showed her a tape of the playoff, Jenny cried.
In July 1998, Chuasiriporn had checked in at Blackwolf Run’s registration desk and was given books of guest tickets. She had thumbed through the tickets: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And Monday.
Monday? Oh, in case there’s a playoff, Jenny thought.
|A large throng of spectators saw Jenny Chuasiriporn hole her 45-foot birdie putt on Sunday. (John Mummert/USGA)
Now she would be in such a playoff. On Sunday, July 5, in a dream-like moment near dusk, Jenny Chuasiriporn became one of the most celebrated golfers in the world. She walked onto the 72nd green one stroke behind Se Ri Pak. Her brother, Joey Chuasiriporn, who she had played golf with “since we could walk” was her caddie. Joey and Jenny studied her 45-foot putt for a birdie. She paced the line to the hole, trying to get a feel for the speed.
“Just tell me the spot,” Jenny said.
“About a foot left,” said Joey.
The packed grandstands were hushed. Joey glanced at the scoreboard behind the green. Pak was six over par. Jenny was seven over.
“Give it a good run for it,” he told his sister.
“Which means don’t leave it short,” Jenny muttered.
She hit the putt the way she wanted to and her ball trundled over the smooth grass. Fifteen feet from the hole, it began to veer slowly to the right. In anticipation, the crowd rumbled and as the ball moved closer to the hole, the rumble built into a low roar. Jenny, her eyes huge, raised her putter as the ball advanced. When it toppled into the hole she clapped her hands over her mouth and the crowd exploded. In the NBC Sports trailer, an audio meter rocketed into the red zone and the technician hastily potted down the sound.
The gallery kept yelling and Joey and Jenny stared at each other, overwhelmed. Then Joey swept his sister into a crushing hug.
“I kind of turned to my brother and he was just delighted, almost in tears,” Jenny remembered. “We couldn’t think straight at that point.”
Jimmy Chuasiriporn, Jenny’s 10-year-old brother, solemnly assessed the putt for a television crew.
Jenny signed her scorecard and waited. As Pak played the 72nd hole, Jenny asked someone how the Korean player stood with par. “Six,” was the reply.
Out on the fairway Se Ri heard the cheers but she was unaware of the meaning of Jenny’s breathtaking stroke until her caddie Jeff Cable muttered, “You might have to go into a playoff.”
Pak was suddenly nervous. “Everybody was going crazy. I thought Jenny made the putt to win.”
Pak managed a shaky par. When told she was tied, Se Ri was ready to go again. “I thought we’d need three holes, or hole-to-hole,” she said. “I never thought we’d go 18. Right after I put in my scorecard, I’m ready, and then they said, ‘Tomorrow.’
“Tomorrow? ‘Yes, and you have to go 18.’ Again? This golf course? 18?”
In the media center, it was standing room only as reporters waited for Chuasiriporn. Writers, photographers and local camera crews sprawled on the chairs and lined the walls. Earlier in the week, Jenny had been invited in as one of the top 10 scorers and only a dozen people had shown up. Nine were members of the USGA Women’s Committee, hastily scrambled to add more bodies to the audience.
Now Chuasiriporn was the most popular player in town. She fielded questions for an hour before Pak came in. Tomorrow they would meet for an 18-hole playoff to decide the title.
Both players were muscular but relatively small at about 5 feet, 6 inches tall. Even their golf swings were similar; classic, flowing and rather flat. There the similarities stopped.
Pak was born in Korea and had been rigorously trained by her father. She came to the United States for the first time to play in the 1995 U.S. Women’s Amateur, where she lost in the semifinals. Even then she had the sleek look of a professional with her colorful, crisply pressed wardrobe and a retinue of advisors. She spoke very little English.
Chuasiriporn’s parents had immigrated to the United States from Thailand but she was born here and her parents owned a Thai restaurant, Bangkok Palace, in Timonium, Md. The family lived over the restaurant and Jenny had helped the operation by working in the kitchen and waiting tables. A successful college player, she would be a senior at Duke University.
That night, Pak was heartened when she thought of the spectators who had waved Korean flags. “They must have driven a long way,” she thought and she lay awake planning each hole.
Chuasiriporn and her mother, father and two brothers had checked out of their motel Sunday morning and now checked into a bed and breakfast. They stayed in their rooms Sunday night, eating take-out food.
A Little Magic
The Monday playoff between the Korean professional and the amateur would salvage this Women’s Open from the ignominy of the highest winning score in 15 years.
|Crowd favorite Nancy Lopez unceremoniously missed the cut at the 1998 Women's Open. (J.D. Cuban/USGA)
Until Chuasiriporn’s improbable putt, it had been a brutal week. The fan favorite was Nancy Lopez, four times a Women’s Open runner-up. In the 1970s Lopez had inspired many girls to take up the game and they began to show up at American golf courses, wearing colorful visors like Nancy’s and swinging junior golf clubs.
In 1997, Lopez had lost by a stroke. She had flown into Kohler a few weeks early for extra practice on the course. She would play an inconsequential role.
When the championship began, Lopez was trailed by hundreds of spectators and a dozen reporters and was accosted by autograph seekers. “People kept stepping on me, grabbing me,” she said. “It gets scary sometimes.” Midway through the first round she asked for protection. Security people escorted her for the rest of the way.
At the end of 36 holes, Lopez knew she would miss the cut. But she was a genuinely pleasant, cheerful woman and on the final fairway she flashed a big smile, pulled a white towel from her bag and waved it over her head in surrender.
On the sidelines, the incident delighted Amy Nutt. Nutt covered six Women’s Opens for Sports Illustrated. At the first one she had made the rookie mistake of walking 18 holes in a pair of sandals but now she knew the right moves; striding ahead of tee shots and climbing to vantage points on the hills, notepad in hand.
Nutt scribbled on her notepad as Lopez waved the towel. She needed something to write about. When scores had climbed in the early rounds, she felt that the Women’s Open had begun to seem pedestrian. Nutt wanted some magic.
It has been said that wind is the only thing that professional golfers fear. Early Saturday morning, 30 mph gusts began to wallop the course.
When 16 of the best women golfers in the world failed to break 80, Judy Bell had to answer for it. Bell had finished her term as USGA president in February but she had nurtured the Women’s Open for decades. In 1995, when the Women’s Open was played at The Broadmoor Golf Club, her home course in Colorado Springs, she had called in many favors. The 1995 Women’s Open drew a then-record crowd of more than 94,000. Bell had seen the bad years too, when the Women’s Open was the best-kept secret in golf. Returning this week to help set up the course, she was thrilled by the crowds.
After Friday’s cut came at 8-over-par 150, Saturday’s harsh and unpredictable wind came up just after holes had been cut and tees set for the third round. Bell and Tom Meeks, USGA director of Rules and Competitions, drove back out and raced from hole to hole, moving tees and softening hole locations, but swirling gusts blew off Lake Michigan, scattering approach shots and leaving everybody above par. The lowest score of the day was 73.
“When I was up there for site visits I knew that it was going to be a wonderful test and boy, when the wind blew, it was as difficult a Women’s Open as we had played in a long time,” said Bell.
Firm greens grew rock hard. Clubbing changed drastically. The players grew testy.
“Yesterday I hit a 9-iron into the seventh green,” said Mhairi McKay. “Today I hit 3-wood.”
A more pleasant note was the appearance of former U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Saturday afternoon Bush walked through the rough on the 16th hole and took a post under a tree at the corner of the dogleg. Suntanned and elegant in a gleaming white shirt and a crisp necktie, his suit jacket tossed over his shoulder, Bush watched the players while Secret Service agents hovered nearby.
“Isn’t that President Bush?” Jenny had asked her brother as they walked past the tree.
“It’s gotta be,” Joey said.
Jenny was so immersed in her round that, “I didn’t even have time to wave at him.”
The wind calmed on Sunday and long lines of spectators again filed through the gates. Herbert Vollrath Kohler Jr., president and chairman of The Kohler Company, had a lot to do with that. Blackwolf Run was an amalgamation of holes from his two courses; The Meadows and The River. Herb Kohler had promised his Kohler Company employees days off from work, if they attended the Women’s Open. Obviously, they had complied.
When the field had teed off Sunday morning, Pak had a one-stroke edge over McKay and Liselotte Neumann. She was four strokes ahead of Chuasiriporn. Some four hours later, Jenny made her breathtaking putt on the 72nd hole.
Chuasiriporn looked like the amateur she was: Her gleaming black hair was pulled into a ponytail with wayward strands tumbling out from under her visor. The shirttail of her white golf shirt threatened to escape and her white-and-brown saddled golf shoes, freshly polished, had seen better days.
Pak, on the other hand, was toned and tanned, the model of the successful professional athlete. In May she had become history’s youngest winner of the LPGA Championship, but Pak was just beginning to clamber into a daunting arena for which she was ill prepared. She would struggle with her success.
Few knew how much Se Ri Pak wanted to win the Women’s Open. The year before, she had told her mother, “I don’t know why I feel so strong. It doesn’t matter what tournament I win but I really want the Women’s Open.”
Pak even had dreams about it. When she told her mother of the dreams, they laughed. When she won the 1998 LPGA Championship on May 17, Pak was mostly thrilled that she had secured a starting time in the Women’s Open.
“Most important for me, I’m happiest I don’t have to go to Women’s Open qualifying,” Pak said.
The Long Day
Chuasiriporn and Pak arrived to warm up for the playoff. At first, they noticed few spectators.
“I don’t think it’s going to be with that much people because Monday, people have to go to work,” Pak said. “I’m in the clubhouse and there are still not that much people I can see. Range? Some, but not really much. First tee? I never see that much people. Ever. Even these days I don’t see that many fans out. Oh, my! Everywhere, screaming excitement!”
Jenny and Se Ri struck off, accompanied by Meeks, Joan Birkland, who was chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee, and thousands of fans. Pak gleamed, her clothes studded with corporate logos. Chuasiriporn wore the colors of Duke University. She had grabbed a white Blackwolf Run visor in the merchandise tent.
The golf was good and for 17 holes they were evenly matched. Chuasiriporn birdied three of the first five holes, but a triple-bogey on the sixth squandered most of her three-stroke lead.
Golf World’s veteran scribe Lisa Mickey walked with the players that day. “It was stressful on a difficult, long golf course but they were both hitting solid shots and countering each other’s efforts,” Mickey said.
Pak was all business. “She looked like a confident pro, with all of her corporate logos,” said Mickey. “Jenny looked like a college kid hanging on for dear life but playing dangerously well. She was a strong young woman and was, from what I could see, pretty fearless. I remember Se Ri seemed somewhat surprised that the college golfer was hanging with her, shot for shot.”
Jenny was amazed at the size of the crowds. Eight thousand people spilled through the rough and sprawled on the hillsides to watch just two small players and she leaned heavily on her brother Joey as they were swept along on a sea of applause and people chanting, “Jen-NEE! Jen-NEE!! Jen-NEE!”
At the 17th hole, Pak and Chuasiriporn were tied at one over par after Jenny banged a 3-foot putt into the back of the hole, “as if it was on the putting green for a milkshake,” said NBC commentator Roger Maltbie.
The 421-yard 18th hole curled around the new water hazard. It was the longest par-4 on the golf course. Chuasiriporn had success on the hole. She had played it in two under par in four rounds and she hit her tee shot down the fairway, smiled and reached for a bottle of water.
With a bogey and three pars, Pak had a more troubled relationship with the 18th. Then she made a near fatal mistake. Her tee shot screamed left, bounding through the rough toward the water. Spectators gasped.
“Absolutely really, really a bad swing,” said NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller. “A goin’ hook. Big trouble, Roger. Big trouble.”
|Se Ri Pak was able to extract her ball from the hazard at the 18th hole and eventually won the playoff in 20 holes. (John Mummert/USGA)
Her nerves tight as piano wire, Pak quickly walked through the crowd toward the water. She should not have hit her drive left, she knew. The water was the only trouble on the hole.
She had released the clubhead just a fraction early, sending her ball sailing toward the water. Sickened, she believed she might have blown the dream of a lifetime.
Birkland and Meeks waited for Pak on the bank. As Se Ri approached, she spotted a tiny patch of white. It was just a glimmer but it could be a golf ball.
“That distance, I cannot see,” she said. “I walk to there and I see white. A white ball. And I’m hoping it’s my ball because it’s not in the water. It’s amazing how it’s staying there because it’s skinny grass which can’t even handle the weight of the ball.”
Chuasiriporn waited in the fairway as Pak’s ball dangled precariously on the bank, a couple of feet above the water line.
Just one week ago this big, ragged ditch had been dry. When Tom Meeks had first surveyed the layout, he wanted something more out of the finishing hole – something challenging and picturesque, equal to the finale of the biggest women’s championship in the world. Meeks wanted water in the ditch. So, the week before play began a pipe had been fitted to the 18th-hole irrigation system and water had gushed into the ditch for three days. Now it was about an acre of water, 40 yards wide in the landing area of tee shots.
Across the fairway from Pak’s ball, lifelong amateur Barbara McIntire watched from a golf cart. She had been in Jenny’s shoes 42 years before in a playoff for the 1956 Women’s Open. This year McIntire was the USA Curtis Cup captain and she couldn’t help pulling for the young amateur, who was a member of her team. Jenny’s seven Curtis Cup teammates huddled around McIntire’s cart.
Chuasiriporn was away and hit a 5-iron from 189 yards. Her ball leaped onto the green and then kicked right, settling in fringe some 50 feet from the hole.
Rules official Joan Birkland stood near Pak’s ball. Birkland had served on the USGA Women’s Committee for 10 years, paying her own expenses as a volunteer at championships throughout the country. And Birkland added an extra ingredient: As a former Colorado state women’s amateur golf and tennis champion, she loved women’s athletic competition. With Meeks, she played a key role.
Birkland watched Jenny hit her second shot and then pointed out drop areas for Se Ri, should she choose to take relief from the hazard.
“It looked like Jenny was going to make four,” Birkland remembered. “Se Ri got in there and she wanted to hit it and her caddie did not want her to hit it. Luckily, Tom Meeks was there because we were taking an awful lot of time.”
With 170 yards to the hole, Se Ri surveyed her options.
Chuasiriporn chatted with her brother in the fairway. “I didn’t have any feelings that she was taking too long,” Jenny said. “Joey and I were just soaking in the experience and the just surreal feeling. The crowd was amazing.”
But Joey now felt that his sister would win. “It took Se Ri forever to play that shot and I just thought to myself there was no way she could tie Jenny on this hole,” he said.
On NBC, Maltbie called the spectators lining the hole, “a mass of humanity.”
After four minutes, Pak told her caddie, a massive man, nicknamed “Tree,” that she was going to stand in the water and play the shot.
“I have to take off my shoes,” Pak said.
At five minutes, Se Ri sat on the ground, removed her shoes and socks and walked into the water. Cheers erupted in the crowd. Chuasiriporn, drained by the long day, munched on an energy bar in the fairway.
Birkland watched Pak, who now stood in the water, hold out her hand for a club. “Tree gave her several clubs and Tom Meeks said, ‘Watch this, Joanie. If she drops one on the ball, we’re cooked!’ She couldn’t get her balance, so she was down there for quite some time.”
To Pak, that moment seemed to stretch for hours. “I picked a club. I’m kind of afraid if I hit the ball, it’s going to make kicks… I just didn’t want to panic.’”
The water was nearly up to Pak’s knees. “All you gotta do is just get it in the middle of the fairway,” Tree said.
“Anything could happen here,” Miller said from the NBC tower.
The ball was well above her feet and Pak gripped her gap wedge nearly on the shaft. She remembers thinking that all she could do was her best. “As I hit it, I think I closed my eyes,” she said.
Pak swung and her ball shot from the mud and grass, soared and fell into the fairway some 80 yards short of the green. Pak couldn’t follow her ball in the sky, but she knew it had cleared the water. People in the gallery cheered in relief.
“It’s probably my best strike ever. Really ever,” Se Ri said. “Even though I have so much winning since, I’ve never had that feeling, ever. Still not!”
As Pak climbed out of the hazard, Birkland said, “Great shot, Se Ri,” and like a coach sending a player back into the game, instinctively slapped Se Ri on the rear end.
This was the magic and Amy Nutt was bowled over by the crowds and excitement. “It was classic women’s golf – just as competitive as men, but with a more generous sense of humor and humility,” Nutt said.
In Seoul, Korea, it was the middle of the night. Televisions screens were lit up across the nation. In her bedroom, 10-year-old Inbee Park was awakened by loud cheering as her parents watched Pak play the final holes. In another household the mother and father of 10-year-old Jiyai Shin woke her up to watch. Park and Shin would remember that night for the rest of their lives.
Pak hit safely to the 18th green, leaving herself a 20-footer for par. The crowd shouted Jenny’s name as she walked onto the green. She smiled, then steadied herself and studied the chip.
“She doesn’t look afraid,” Miller said in the NBC tower.
Perhaps it was added adrenalin or the tension of the moment but Chuasiriporn had what she calls “trigger anxiety,” and she gunned her chip shot 15 feet past the hole.
“I really just had to swallow and take the club back most of the day,” Jenny said.
The NBC announcers started talking about sudden death.
Pak’s putt for par stopped 2 feet short of the hole. Jenny had a putt to win the Women’s Open. In the sudden silence surrounding the green, Jenny rolled her putt toward the hole and it grazed the lip, refusing to fall. Her father, sitting greenside, fell to his back in the grass.
A pair of bogeys. Still tied. Sudden death.
Birkland and Meeks climbed into a cart with the players and caddies and headed for the 10th tee as spectators swarmed around them, shouting “Jen-NEE! Jen-NEE! Se-REE! Se-REE!”
“They’re both in tears in the cart,” said Birkland, “I said, ‘You know you guys, you’re 20 years old. Savor all of this!’
“The caddies and me and these kids in tears. Jenny cried more, of course, than Se Ri. They both were very, very emotional. The people were chanting as they walked alongside and they were trying to hold themselves together.”
Joey was in shock as they rode to the 10th tee. “I was still trying to figure how we did not win it on 18,” he said. “All we had to do was get up and down from the edge of the green. The putt she had to win was a putt that just grazed the edge of the hole.”
Jenny was bitterly disappointed and she later remembered, “I thought I was going to do it there. I really felt it slip away. I just remember being so nervous. My hands were just shaking on pretty much every shot.”
Both managed pars on the first extra hole. At the 20th hole, both hit the green. Jenny was 22 feet from the hole. Se Ri, 21 feet.
Jenny banged her birdie putt and her ball brushed the edge of the hole, ending 2 feet past.
“I thought she made it, it was so close,” Se Ri said.
Chin in hand, Jenny knelt in the fringe to watch Se Ri putt for the title.
“I knew it was going to come down to one putt and that one of us was going to make, sooner or later,” Chuasiriporn said. “I really had a sixth sense that she was going to make it. I made a good run for it the first time and I knew it was going to happen.”
George Bush and Herb Kohler stood back in the fairway with Tim Finchem, commissioner of the PGA Tour. Crowds covered the hillside.
“My turn,” Pak said. “I see the line earlier and I feel confidence. I hit it. I hit it hard! It was just really like slow motion.”
Pak’s ball rolled to the hole and fell in. She screamed and as Tree threw his arms around her, she sobbed.
Jenny smiled but she was clearly shattered and she had to gather herself when Maltbie put a microphone in front of her.
“This is a great experience, more than I ever, ever expected,” Jenny said. “This is more than I could ask for.”
Se Ri basked in her happiness and spoke of Jenny as a great player.
That Women’s Open showcased the fearlessness of youth for Lisa Mickey. “I was happy for Se Ri, sad for Jenny and thrilled for women’s golf. It came down to a matter of mental survival, luck and nerves.”
Amy Nutt believed that this day 14 years ago was a real boost for women’s golf. “It anticipated both the surge of foreign players and the youngsters about to come along,” she said.
At the trophy presentation, Jenny and Se Ri sat in chairs behind a podium. Jenny teased the new champion.
“You have to jump in the water,” Jenny said. “I just have to see that.”
Se Ri grinned.
Jenny received a silver medal as runner-up. Se Ri won a gold medal and possession of the Harton S. Semple U.S. Women’s Open Trophy for a year.
That night after the playoff, weary USGA officials gathered at an Italian restaurant. Iconic American singer Frank Sinatra had died that spring and when his recorded voice came from the restaurant’s sound system, someone raised a glass and said, “To Frank.” Other diners raised their glasses.
“To Frank,” they said in unison.
At that moment, the restaurant door opened and Jenny Chuasiriporn walked in, looking tired and drained. She brightened as the diners burst into applause. Jenny, who says she never really liked a lot of attention, cannot recall the incident.
She had a brilliant summer. In August, her USA Curtis Cup team defeated Great Britain and Ireland for the first time since 1990. Reporters singled Jenny out and when the attention threatened the team’s cohesiveness, Barbara McIntire, the captain, insisted that media interviews focus on three players at a time, not just on her star player.
A week later at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Ann Arbor, Mich., thousands of fans, many of them children, swarmed Barton Hills Country Club. Clever advertising had included billboards trumpeting, “How Do You Spell Chuasiriporn?”
When she arrived for her first day of practice, the children whispered, “There’s Jenny,” “It’s Jenny!” So many children asked her for her autograph that she needed an escort from the practice tee to the putting green. She played well that week and advanced to the final, where several thousand spectators watched her lose to another Korean-born player, Grace Park, 7 and 6. At the trophy presentation ceremony, Jenny was given a silver medal as runner-up.
“I already have one of these,” she said, and laughter rippled through the crowd.
In November, Jenny smashed the individual scoring record at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Santiago, Chile, shooting 71-65-69-71—276 and led her USA team of Kellee Booth and Brenda Corrie Kuehn to victory. Barbara McIntire was again her captain.
For his sister, Joey believes the week in Kohler was a blur. “Everything seemed to happen so fast,” he said. “I think that week really shocked her; what she was almost able to accomplish as an amateur.”
That autumn, when Jenny went back to Duke, a professional career was only a vague possibility and 14 years have now passed since that memorable summer.
|Why 1998 Women's Open Was A Seminal Moment
Koreans In 1998 Field: 3
Koreans In 2011 Field: 35
*-Korean USGA Champions Pre-1998: 4
*-Korean USGA Champions Post-Pak Win: 17
*-Born in Korea or lived most of time in Korea
Jenny’s brother Joey, her loyal caddie in the Women’s Open, went on to graduate from Penn State. Today he lives in Hong Kong where he has worked as product manager, Asia Division for TaylorMade/Adidas for the last five years.
Jenny’s younger brother, Jimmy, now 24, is in the physical therapy field.
Tom Meeks retired from the USGA and lives in his home state of Indiana where he happily pursues boating and golf.
Joan Birkland ended her term as chairman of the USGA Women’s Committee in February 1999. Today she is executive director of Sportswomen of Colorado, an organization that supports women’s sports and sponsors scholarships to sports camps for girls who cannot otherwise afford to go.
Lisa Mickey remained in golf reporting. In 2007, 2008 and 2011 she won the Internet feature writing category in the Golf Writers Association of America writing contest. The 1998 Women’s Open remains her favorite because of its compelling nature.
Amy Nutt is a staff writer for The Star Ledger in Newark, N.J. In 2011 she won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.
Jenny Chuasiriporn went back to the life she loved; returning to her college friends, her studies and attending college basketball games. At loose ends after graduating, she finally turned professional and played on the mini-tour. But her heart wasn’t in it and she soon abandoned the pro ranks.
“I quickly came to the decision that maybe I needed to walk away,” Chuasiriporn said. “Looking back, it may not have been what I would have done had the Women’s Open not occurred. I was forced to realize where my heart was.”
Chuasiriporn became a nurse and works in the cardiac surgery intensive care unit at Virginia Commonwealth University Health Systems. Now married, she hasn’t played golf since 2007. With her husband, who is attending medical school, she plays other sports.
“I haven’t watched the Women’s Open,” said Jenny. “It seems like a total dream. One of my friends tried to show me the playoff and I can’t even watch. The tears come to my eyes. That disappointment. Everything kind of came together that week, just having my brother on my bag, feeling comfort. And my parents and my little brother were able to come up and my [Duke] golf coach, Dan Brooks, was there. It was so incredible, I can’t even describe it. I was just so focused and busy and playing golf. I just was happy. I look back and it was definitely some of the happiest times.”
Her brother believes that Jenny’s runner-up finish was perhaps for the best. “To this day, I think she is happy that she did not win, because even though she will always be known for that wonderful week, she is really happy to be doing what she is doing now,” Joey said.
Jenny’s medals are with her parents, as well as her driver and putter from that memorable day in 1998. “I have the rest of my clubs here,” she said. “Those are the ones I say, ‘Don’t touch these. Don’t give them away.’”
In the spring of 1999, Se Ri Pak, as defending champion, spoke at U.S. Women’s Open Media Day at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss. A reporter asked if she had since seen Jenny.
“Yes, I saw her on the putting green at the Nabisco Championship in April,” Pak said.
“What did you say to each other?”
“Hi,” said Pak, and the reporters laughed.
Today Inbee Park and Jiyai Shin, the small Korean girls awakened by their parents to watch the first Korean win the Women’s Open, are enjoying great careers. Shin is now a leading player on the LPGA Tour. Four years after Blackwolf Run, Park claimed the U.S. Girls’ Junior and in 2008 she claimed the U.S. Women’s Open. Both attribute their success to Pak’s inspiration 14 years ago.
Outwardly, Pak has changed little. She is a bit heavier than she was in 1998 but her face is unlined. She flashes a warm smile as she remembers the day she inspired a generation of little girls. Her English is nearly flawless.
“Every Korean player comes up to me and tells me they started playing golf because of that day,” Pak said. “Even their parents. That’s why they start. Honestly, I’m very proud.”
In 1998, just three Koreans were in the entire Women’s Open field. Last year when Korean So Yeon Ryu defeated compatriot Hee Kyung Seo in a three-hole playoff at The Broadmoor, there were 35 Koreans in the field.
Pak is a sort of den mother to the young Korean players who come to the United States to play on the LPGA Tour. It is a lot of pressure, she says, to make sure she leads them in the right way.
“My job right now is not only playing the best golf,” Se Ri said, “now I have to show them how to be as a top player. The right way. I’m really enjoying it. I enjoy watching them. To be here with them, that’s amazing.”
Pak was pointing toward a return visit to Blackwolf Run this summer, but a shoulder injury has at least temporarily sent her to the sidelines. Whether or not she will be able to play is still in question.
Se Ri will forever remember her shot out of the water hazard in 1998. After talking about that day 14 years ago, in her next three 2012 tournaments she finished in the top 10 twice and won more than $100,000, compared to only $30,000 in her first two events. Perhaps she was inspired by that long-ago moment of glory when she hit what she calls the best shot of her life.
“That shot was the beginning for me,” Pak said.
Joan Birkland agrees with Se Ri’s assessment. “When you think of it, that’s exactly right,” Birkland said. “It was such a dramatic thing. It was meant to be and she turned out to do so much for her country that it was incredible.”
Birkland said the USGA received many letters after that Women’s Open. Most people expressed their excitement and their optimism for the future of women’s golf. Others, however, said Rules officials should not have allowed Pak to take so much time playing the shot from the hazard.
Tom Meeks said he replied to complaints by saying, “There’s not a golf Rules official in the world that would have done anything differently than what Joanie and I did.”
“Some of them wrote that we were prejudiced,” Birkland said. “Well, for which country?”
Rhonda Glenn is a manager of communications for the USGA. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.