Defending champion So Yeon Ryu took off her golf shoes and entered the large bunker to the left of the 18th fairway at Blackwolf Run, re-enacting one of the iconic moments in U.S. Women’s Open history.
Fourteen years earlier, Se Ri Pak of Korea had played a shot from what was at the time a man-made water hazard to help her capture a historic victory that thrilled her country and inspired youngsters such as Ryu to take up the game.As a May 22 practice round was concluding in front of several reporters and officials gathered for 2012 Women’s Open media day, Ryu walked down into the bunker and paid tribute to her hero, who hours earlier spent time walking the first nine holes of the course.
She took her stance in the same spot where Pak had stood and played the shot.
"Today, I took a picture of it," said Ryu proudly at the press conference after the practice round. "I love this picture."
Folks at Blackwolf Run are mighty proud of that moment as well. That 1998 Women’s Open was memorable enough that the USGA decided to have an encore. The 2012 Women’s Open will be conducted at Blackwolf Run July 5-8.
As the 18-hole playoff reached the last hole on that Monday in 1998, Pak had driven her ball into the hazard left of the fairway, and was fearful of losing to amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. The two 20-year-olds were tied at the time and Pak thought her ball had submerged in the water.
Fortunately for Pak, the ball could be seen. Instead of taking a one-stroke penalty, Pak took off her shoes, waded into the water and found a way to extract her ball from the hazard. She made bogey, which was enough to keep the playoff going when Chuasiriporn missed a 15-footer for par. Two holes later, Pak made a 20-foot birdie putt to capture the longest playoff in Women’s Open history.
It gave Pak, then an LPGA Tour rookie, a second major title in 1998 – she had won the LPGA Championship in June – and sparked a Hall-of-Fame career that includes 32 worldwide wins (25 on the LPGA Tour) and five major championships. It also spawned a generation of young Koreans, many of whom stayed up in the wee hours of the morning with their parents in 1998 to witness history.
Ryu, now 21, was just 7 years old at the time and involved in music, specifically the violin and piano. Then a friend told her about golf, which had received a jolt of publicity thanks to Pak.
"Before 1998, golf was not a famous sport in Korea," said Ryu, who still plays the piano and violin. "1998 was a turning point. After [Pak] won, golf is a really famous sport, and that’s why I am here."
It’s why so many Koreans dot the women’s golf landscape. Consider this: When Pak won the Women’s Open, just three Koreans were in the field, and only Pak played the weekend. At last year’s Women’s Open at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, Colo., 35 Koreans competed.
Since Pak’s triumph, 17 Koreans have claimed USGA championships, including four Women’s Opens, won by Ryu, Birdie Kim (2005), Inbee Park (2008) and Eun-Hee Ji (2009). Korean-Americans such as Tiffany Joh, Michelle Wie, Kristen Park, Kimberly Kim and Jennifer Song own a combined seven USGA titles. And the Korean-born Lydia Ko, who now resides in New Zealand, is currently the No. 1 female amateur, according to the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
"When I heard I inspire all young players in Korea … it put so much pressure on me," said Pak at media day at Blackwolf Run. "For me, I was very proud of it, but at the same time, I didn’t know if I was doing the right things for those kids."
Just coming to the U.S. and succeeding on the LPGA Tour was more than enough to pave the way for a future generation of greats. Pak showed everyone in Korea that a golfer could enjoy success in an entirely new culture, something that had not been previously accomplished by anyone.
Combine that with a tireless work ethic and you had the model for future stars like Ryu to follow.
"She practiced really hard," said Ryu. "Everyone following Se Ri practiced so hard."
Ryu, who is one year away from graduating with a physical education degree from Yonsei University in Seoul, believed if she focused on fundamentals and practiced, she too could follow in Pak’s footsteps.
In just her second Women’s Open appearance, Ryu accomplished her ultimate dream, making a clutch birdie at the 72nd hole to force the first three-hole playoff in Women’s Open history. After the 2005 Women’s Open, the USGA decided to eliminate the 18-hole playoff for a three-hole, aggregate-score format.
Ryu was fortunate enough to complete her final round before play was suspended for darkness. Due to numerous thunderstorms throughout the competition, the Women’s Open was not completed until Monday morning. When countrywoman Hee Kyung Seo was unable to break the deadlock, she and Ryu headed to the 16th hole to begin the playoff, where a proud Pak watched from the gallery.
After Ryu prevailed, several players doused her with champagne. It was a breakthrough win for the then-20-year-old, who is now a full-time player in her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, adjusting to life away from home just like Pak 14 years earlier.
The transition is much less daunting today because of the wealth of Korean players on the tour. Pak was basically a lone wolf in 1998. More than 40 Koreans, including Pak, are currently playing on the LPGA Tour, and the circuit has official events in Asia.
Ryu speaks English quite well, which makes the adjustment to a new country a bit easier.
The night before media day, Ryu and Pak took part in a special celebration in Chicago supported by a Korean newspaper, where Ryu saw a highlight film of Pak’s 1998 Women’s Open performance.
A week earlier, Ryu was in New Jersey for the Sybase Match Play Championship, which gave her a chance to stop by the USGA Museum for a preview of the Mickey Wright Room, the first such room in the Museum dedicated to a female golfer.
It was then she realized the magnitude of her accomplishment last year in Colorado.
"That was surreal," she said. "I saw my name on the wall [in the Hall of Champions]. There were lots of great players on the wall and even my name was there. How can I say it, I am a very lucky girl."
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.