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Deconstructing Se Ri

By Hunki Yun

| Jun 15, 2020
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Se Ri Pak's 1998 U.S. Women's Open triumph made her an icon in Korea. (USGA/JD Cuban)

Originally published in the September 1998 issue of Golf Digest, part of the USGA Golf Museum Library archive. Hunki Yun now serves as the USGA's Director of Business Development.

Se Ri Pak finally did it. She didn’t do it when she was 14, after winning her first tournament in her native South Korea. She didn’t do it during the cold mornings in the dead of winter when she was running up and down 15 flights of stairs. She didn’t do it when she left home at the age of 19 to live more than 7,500 miles away in a country where she knew nobody and didn’t speak the language. She didn’t do it when she exceeded all expectations and won a major, the McDonald’s LPGA Championship, as a 20-year-old rookie. She didn’t do it when her newly acquired puppy almost died from a respiratory illness. But when she sank a 15-foot putt on the 92nd hole of the U.S. Women’s Open, she finally lost it.

“First time I cry in my life,” said Se Ri, about the moment on the 11th green at Blackwolf Run in which she thrust her arms in the air and was enveloped by her father, Joon Chul Pak.

It was the first emotion of the week for Se Ri, who exhibited an intensity bordering on the unearthly during both her major victories. Her cold stare, unmatched in golf, has led Korean pro Ok Hee Ku to say, “I get chills when I look at her.”

Inside the ropes, Se Ri is The Terminator, a cyborgian collector of major championships. She is single-minded in her pursuit, moving down the fairway with precise strides, perfect posture and an unflinching physiognomy anchored by penetrating eyes that never leave her prey. At 5-foot-6, she isn’t physically intimidating, but her almost-too-short shorts reveal chiseled legs that ripple where the hamstrings and quadriceps come together. Limbs that solid can’t possibly be human.

For too long, she has kept it up. But then comes the putt, tracking toward the center of the hole, each roll erasing the golf world’s collective consciousness of Annika, Karrie and Kelly. When it drops, it blows a microchip in Se Ri’s CPU.

Trophy in hand and the tears wiped away, Se Ri’s robotic veneer is lifted as she steps into the interview area and sinks into the chair. She provides responses in a quiet, tired voice. “Do you think you’re the best player in the world now?” somebody asks. “No, not yet,” she replies, “because I am start, then I have many years left.”

With the modest admission in broken English, Se Ri has shown herself to be a likeably vulnerable young woman whose head covers are cartoon characters. Gracefully, she disarms interlocutors with shy smiles and genuine laughs.

Later, the questions have been answered, the photos taken, the autographs signed. Se Ri is with Happy, her weeks-old beagle. Holding Happy in her arms, she kisses the dog as it bites her ear. The Terminator and her puppy are beaming.

Bridging the Cultural Chasm

The two sides of Se Ri are the classic tale of man versus machine in a single package. In competition, her face is cold and impassive, suppressing feelings as she stalks birdie after birdie.

The other side is an all-too-human 20-year-old who gamely goes about her business in English without the help of a translator. When she speaks, Se Ri is hesitant, trying to form the right words before they leave her mouth.

So we switch to Korean. Even before the first question is asked, she relaxes. All traces of the girl disappear, replaced by a self-assured woman. She’s articulate, confident; she even jokes. Believe it or not, she becomes gregarious.

“I think I’m expressing my emotions,” Se Ri says in Korean, addressing her placid exterior. “When good or bad things happen, I react to them. I guess it doesn’t look that way to other people. Emotions don’t help my game.

“I was afraid of saying the wrong things in English,” she continues, her words bolstered by the inflections of her voice. “So I didn’t talk. Now I try to speak more. If I’m right or wrong, it doesn’t matter.” She laughs at herself.

Her improving English has caused problems, not just for English speakers, but for Koreans as well. “I speak English a lot now,” she says. “When I speak Korean, English just comes out. Koreans would say my tongue got twisted.

“I also have trouble with accents. Koreans use English words. But the pronunciation is different. Putter is ‘batta.’” We then compare other words that have confounded us in Konglish: banka (bunker), pil-lim (film), Galoway (Callaway).

She’s had plenty of chances to slip up. Following the U.S. Women’s Open, she’s giving an interview in Korean. During a sentence, the start of a “you know” forms on her tongue before she recovers.

Korean athletes abroad are subject to constant scrutiny. In his third season with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Chan Ho Park still draws a full contingent of Korean media. All starts are broadcast back to Korea on radio and television, some live. Every Korean writer in the press box keeps track of every pitch. The appetite for detail is infinite.

Even before her first major victory, Se Ri was South Korea’s best and most popular player (the best player in the North is clearly dictator Jong Il Kim, who allegedly shot a 34 for 18 holes in 1994. Kelli Kuehne was paired with Pak in a tournament in South Korea last fall. “There were people everywhere following us,” says Kuehne. “The only person I have ever seen who received the same kind of reaction was Tiger.”

The media focus intensified during the McDonald’s LPGA Championship. Korean writers and TV crews flew halfway around the world to document her receiving the trophy from the clown with the red hair. They followed her home to Orlando and then to Rochester, her next tournament, leaving when she didn’t win.

The cameras were back in her face at the U.S. Women’s Open, literally. The playoff was shown live in Korea, where it began at 2 a.m. Tuesday. Millions sacrificed sleep to watch.

Now comparisons to Tiger don’t begin to describe her status in Korea. A better analogy would be Tiger, Michael Jordan and Mark McGwire combined – comparisons Se Ri would like to shed. “Eventually, I don’t want to be compared to Tiger or Jordan. I want to be compared to me.” It has already begun. A Korean newspaper headline after the Open read: SHE’S NOT THE FEMALE TIGER’; HE’S THE ‘MALE SE RI.’

After winning the LPGA Championship, Pak’s manager, Steven Kill, tried to explain to American reporters why her feat was so important in her native country. He brought up Kee Chung Sohn’s gold medal in the marathon at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games.

Kee Chung Who?

Perhaps some background will help. The Korean peninsula is found in a geographical squeeze between China and Japan. The history of Korea has been one of oppression and a fight for survival against its neighbors, not unlike Scotland or Israel. Like the citizens of those countries, Koreans possess sizable chips on their shoulders and a surfeit of national pride.

The 20th century has been no better. In 1910, Japan annexed Korea. The Allies freed Korea after World War II, but the Soviet Union claimed the north and the U.S. the south. The Korean War began in 1950 when tanks – the Chinese, this time – rumbled across the 38th parallel. The fighting is over, but Koreans are still a people divided.


Se Ri Pak became one of the game's greatest players, and an inspiraton to a generation of future stars from Korea. (USGA/John Mummert)

Embattled History, Bleak Prospects

Rebuilding from this devastating war, South Korea took aim at the industrialized West, toiling to carve out a role on the world stage. But financial shortcuts along the way caught up with them, and the International Monetary Fund had to step in last year, bailing out billions of dollars in bad loans. Now South Korea is retrenching. Hundreds of companies are going bankrupt daily, the suicide rate is up to 37 percent and millions are jobless in a nation where lifetime employment was guaranteed a generation ago.

The former marathoner Sohn is emblematic of the Koreans’ bittersweet history. Sohn should have brought glory to Korea. Instead, in a time of occupation, Sohn was Japanese to the rest of the world, running under the Japanese flag under the Japanized name of Kitei Son and listening to the Japanese national anthem. There have been greater injustices – comfort women, for example, Korean women forced into prostitution for Japanese soldiers – but the Sohn insult would never be forgotten.

In the context of this embattled history and bleak prospects, along comes Se Ri, winning the national championship of the world’s most powerful country, lifting the national zeitgeist.

Golf has made a hero out of a youngster barely out of her teens, and most of it can be attributed to – or blamed on – her father, president of a construction company and her only teacher besides David Leadbetter, with whom she currently works. “My father was a plus-handicap, a very good player,” she says. “He learned from reading books and watching videotapes. I followed my dad onto the golf course when he would play with friends. He just gave me a club to swing, so I wouldn’t bother them.”

She didn’t begin playing seriously until she was 14. “I was into track and field at the time,” she recalls. “I ran the 100 meters – my best time was 13 seconds. I didn’t have much interest in golf, but my father thought it would have more opportunities.”

Se Ri’s game was developed at Yoo Sung Country Club, in her native Daejon, a city 100 miles south of Seoul. Off the course, he would wake her at 5:30, and she would run up and down the stairs of their 15-story apartment building. Her powerful legs are evidence of that. He would also have her hit bunker shots at the beach and drop her off at a cemetery – at night.

“I did that to develop courage and nerve,” says Mr. Pak. “I wanted to teach her that to win in golf, she first had to win the battle within herself. Once, I told her to run down the stairs backward, not realizing how difficult that was. I tried it myself and I could only go down five floors. But Se Ri endured my training without any complaints.”

The effects of his training took shape almost immediately. After shooting “82 or 83” in her first competitive round when she was still 14, Se Ri’s game a steep climb to the top. “I wanted to play in the United States from the beginning,” she says, “because that’s where the best players were.”

While still in high school, Se Ri took her game global. She played in the 1994 World Amateur Team Championship in France and in the 1995 U.S. Women’s Amateur, advancing to the semifinals before losing to eventual champion Kuehne.

She turned pro that fall, which was when Korean conglomerate Samsung staked millions on her potential. Samsung Chairman Kun Hee Lee thought, “Korea needs to produce a world-class player.”

The ‘Jung’ Principle

Samsung signed Se Ri to a long-term sponsorship deal that included a million-dollar signing bonus. Exact figures of the deal are unavailable, because business transactions in South Korea are governed by a principle called jung, a word that means trust and respect but implies far more. It’s up to both sides to uphold their end, and it doesn’t require the contracts, provisions and clauses that keep 35,000 law school graduates a year employed in the United States.

“The checks arrive pretty regularly,” says Steven Kil, a former journalist under contract with Samsung, whose sole task is to make sure all Se Ri has to worry about is playing golf. It’s a simple description, but it’s a 24-7 job. He is her manager, travel agent, chaperone, gofer, chauffeur, publicist and banker. After all, she is a 20-year-old on her own, far from home. Her parents are too busy to come over often, although they make several trips a year when her father’s schedule allows.

Kil is often the only conduit between a ravenous nation and its new national hero. His mobile phone rings at all hours of the day and night. For Samsung executives with millions riding on her and for journalists on deadline, eager to sate the thirst of a hero-deprived nation, the 13-hour time differences matter little.

Samsung also put up the money to send Se Ri to the U.S. last year so she could work with the world’s most famous instructor, David Leadbetter.

“I got a call from some people at Samsung,” says Leadbetter, “about this girl who’s won a lot of tournaments on the amateur scene and had performed well in the pro events in Korea. They said, ‘It’s her goal to come to America and work with you and get on the LPGA Tour. Would you be interested?’

“Just her coming over to meet me really impressed me. Her dynamics were good. It’s been fun working with her, because she has the physical attributes where she hits the ball like a man.”

In the year and a half since Se Ri moved to Orlando, Leadbetter improved her technique, sharpened her short game, expanded her fitness regimen and put her on a nutrition plan. One thing he couldn’t touch was her work ethic. In that respect, she resembles another Leadbetter pupil, Nick Faldo.

“I always practice,” Se Ri says. “I have little interest in other things. I don’t want to go to the movies. I don’t want to go out. It’s too much trouble.”

Marathons on the Practice Range

During her practice sessions, which sometimes last from dawn to dusk, she works on the basics. She says the tendency is for her rhythm to become too slow and her swing too long. “What my father and sunsangnim says are pretty similar,” Se Ri says, using the Korean word for teacher when she refers to Leadbetter.

The motion her father developed and Leadbetter refined is far from mechanical. “When I first saw her, she had a long, loose swing,” says the sunsangnim. “We’ve tightened it up considerably. As far as she hits it, she’s a smooth, sweet swinger. The key is her legs. The strong legs give her stability, a foundation around which she makes her move.” Her smooth motion and full, held finish brings to mind Ernie Els – yet another Leadbetter student.

Compared with her full swing, her cross-handed putting occasionally appears a weakness, a remnant of her roots growing up on slow greens in South Korea. But when her putting is the equal of her ball-striking, she looks invincible. Witness what happened the week following the Women’s Open: Pak set LPGA records for lowest 18-hole score (61) and 72-hole aggregate (261) in winning by nine strokes in Toledo. The Rookie of the Year award is already a lock, and the money title and Player of the Year awards are well within her sights.

She has exceeded all expectations so far, but the expectations of others pale in comparison to the goals she’s set for herself. “I want to be the best player in the world,” she says. “I want to be like Nancy Lopez. Not only does she play well, she always has a smile on her face.”

Intermittent Worth

The warmth and openness so foremost in her idol is intermittent with Se Ri. We set up a photo shoot with her, arranging to meet at the LPGA stop at the Marriott’s Seaview Resort. The plan is to drive her 10 minutes to Atlantic City’s famed Boardwalk. She clearly doesn’t think much of it. No, she says, turning on a switch in the back of her head. She is asked again, differently. The sweet-talking, reasoning, pleading, bargaining and begging are met with a neutral expression and cold eyes. This time, there is no response, just a firm shake of the head and eyes that look far away. The cyborg has returned. Kil also tries. It’s useless. “She’s the most stubborn person I’ve ever met,” he says.

The humans break down; Se Ri wins. It’s out of her way, one of the troublesome things that take time away from practice. She wants to be helpful, but she will not do what she doesn’t want to.

So Se Ri poses at the course, with her dog. Almost instantaneously, her demeanor changes. She couldn’t be more cooperative, laughing and smiling on cue. She lifts Happy’s droopy ears and holds them high, so the dog looks like a cartoon character straining to hear the meows of a faraway cat. Funny.

Se Ri is used to attention, but she begins to show the first strains of bearing the weight of an entire nation. Given that, she is grateful for the distance from home, which offers a natural barrier from the intense scrutiny. “Life in the United States is more comfortable,” she says. “I can’t do anything in Korea, because everybody knows who I am. But I’m not that well known here. Even if they know who I am, they don’t bother me.”

Despite complications to a homecoming – she’s concerned, for one, that it will cut into her practice time – Se Ri says, “I want to go to Korea. But I worry about all the expectations and responsibilities.” Her voice trails off as she weighs the options, picturing in her mind how the trip will take shape. She gathers herself and says firmly, “I have to go.”

To do otherwise would be treason.