The price of history: What 1998 meant to Se Ri Pak and South Korea
KOHLER – Among the Monday galleries at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs last July, Se Ri Pak walked along with her daughters So Yeon Ryu and Hee Kyung Seo as the two played off for the U.S. Women's Open trophy.
When Ryu dispatched Seo to win her first major championship, Pak proudly doused the 21-year-old in champagne, christening her latest progeny to capture a major championship.
Pak may have watched with motherly anxiousness – and celebrated with a sorority sister's exuberance – but for Ryu, the moment the two embraced was like receiving a gift from Athena.
"She came to me and said congratulations," said Ryu through a smile. "It feels like really weird because 14 years ago I'm like she's so great, she's God, but now God came to me and said 'Oh, you're so great' so it feels like 'Oh, this is heaven.'"
Ryu and Seo, of course, are not Pak's biological children, yet for 14 years she has watched over them and many other South Korean women who have come to dominate the women's game; a patroness of not only the game, but a country.
"I'm Se Ri Pak, but I'm basically born in 1998 U.S. Open at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin," she said.
Se Ri Pak, 1998, Blackwolf Run.
It rolled off the tongues of South Koreans as beautiful haiku, but the poetry was not as evident for the one born of the waters surrounding the 18th green.
"That day changed everything basically," Pak said in an exclusive sit down with OnMilwaukee.com. "It was not easy. But, I mean, I enjoyed it. It was inspiring for all young golfers in my country and Asia."
Pak's victory was seen on Tuesday in South Korea, and girls like Ryu dropped all other interests in the pursuit of golfing excellence. They wore out the lightly grassed driving ranges, searching for the unmistakable tan lines on Pak's ankles when she played out of the water hazard on the 18th hole of the playoff.
"We call her Legend," said Na Yeon Choi, the world's top ranked South Korean player. "She is still my idol and she is a good role model. I think she changed a lot of things in Korea, especially golf and women's golf. We have to be very thankful to her for what she did."
In the summer of 1998, spirits in South Korea were low. Six months earlier the government shuttered a third of the nation's banks, and the economy shrunk at over a 6-percent rate each quarter. All the people of South Korea looked to her as a hope, a beacon of what could be.
"At the moment golf is not a famous sport in Korea, but Se Ri playing so great so everybody focused on golf," said Ryu, who gave up the violin to pursue the game. "But before, everybody thought golf was just the luxury sports. But these days lots of Koreans really love golf and it feels like a public sport."
At the outset, it made Pak uncomfortable.
"It was so much pressure on me because I don't know if I'm doing the right thing and making sure I'm going the right way and leading and make sure they follow the right way," she said softly.
Now, 14 years and 18 majors by women of Asian descent later, she swells with pride.
"Now, not only in my country, but so many Asians now, they're all good too," she said. "When I see that I'm so proud. Because I know it's not easy to be out because you're leaving. It's a totally new country, it's harder to do that. But they're actually really, really great at handling that. That's why I'm very proud to be a part of it. Of course some things are still difficult, to handle that, but that's what it is."
Her colleagues from around the globe marveled not only at the weight placed upon her shoulders, but how she didn't buckle beneath it. Instead, she won 23 more times on the LPGA Tour, including three more major championships.
"This game is mental enough and then when you feel like you're playing for not only yourself or your family, you're playing for a whole county, that's basically what she's doing. It's tough," said former U.S. Women's Open champion Pat Hurst. "That's what she was doing. They all looked at her. She was the superstar."
Se Ri's Kids, as they're called in South Korea, appreciate it even more now that they are grown. They stress that Pak did indeed do all the right things, led in the right way, and she remains the standard for excellence on the golf course and humility and strength off it.
"I think only Se Ri Pak could've handled it," Choi told OnMilwaukee.com over tea in the clubhouse loft of Blackwolf Run. "If I did it like Se Ri, it's hard to handle that, to keep going. I think she has a lot of pressure, I think with all the Korean people watching her and all the junior golfers watching her game or rooting for her, every time."
She reached for her tea cup, lightly placing her fingers around it.
"She had a lot of pressure, but that moment she didn't give up, she kept going. I think I couldn't do it. It's too much pressure."
On a sunny May afternoon in Kohler, Pak slung her arm around Ryu as they walked Blackwolf Run. They laughed and conversed, the Legend pointing out green subtleties and trouble spots. Pak remains vigilant in her role as counselor to all of the young women her play helped motivate.
Now older, many of them are major champions themselves, and hope to lead in the same fashion.
"I always dreamed about someday I wanted to be similar to Se Ri," Ryu said, nearly bouncing on a clubhouse couch. "Now I hope I'm an idol star for any kids."
In the background, Pak would occasionally look over at the bubbly Ryu. The Legend – always watching, always protective.
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