Posted by: happyfan08 | April 6, 2010

Se Ri Pak/Grace Park: Party Like it’s 1999!

Once upon a time, there was a little girl named Se Ri Pak.  Pak was naturally gifted athletically, and participated in track and field events.  But her greatest gifts came playing the game of golf, and once her father convinced her to focus on that, amazing things happened.  Within a few years of taking up the sport, she was the top woman (girl) golfer in her homeland of South Korea.  A few years after that, she won the biggest event in her entire sport, the 1998 US Women’s Open.  Her victory in that marathon match, at 92 holes the longest in the sport’s history, turned her into the biggest sports celebrity in her land, and an icon for a generation of young Korean girls who would grow up to play the LPGA tour. 

Se Ri Pak, Cover Girl

Meanwhile, another young girl also demonstrated a unique gift in that same sport.  But her parents believed that the best way for her to develop her gift was to leave her country and go to live in the United States.  Ji Eun Park thus was rechristened Grace Park, and within a few years she became the top amateur golfer in her new country.  In 1998, after Se Ri beat amateur star Jenny Chuasiriporn at the Women’s Open, Grace next beat that same player in the finals of the US Women’s Amateur.  Grace turned pro in 1999, joined the LPGA in 2000, and soon became a major star in her own right on that tour. 

Grace Park Wins on tour, 2000

In 2003, Annika Sorenstam was the top women’s golfer in the world.  But the second best golfer on the LPGA tour was Se Ri Pak, who collected three wins that year.  And the third best was Grace Park.  The two little girls from South Korea had become superstars.  Pak would go on to win enough tournaments to qualify for the LPGA’s Hall of Fame, while Grace still had her first Major victory, at the Kraft Nabisco, in her future. 

But an odd thing happened shortly after that.  The little girls who had been inspired by Pak and Park grew into women, joined the LPGA, and started to win tournaments.  Meanwhile, their heroes fell on hard times.  Where once they had been collecting dozens of top tens in a season and earning over a million a year with ease, now the two brilliant ladies had trouble even making cuts, and pretty much disappeared from the leaderboards at most tournaments.  At least Se Ri still would contend now and again, including two more wins post-2005.  But Grace completely disappeared; her last top ten came in late 2005, and for much of the following four years, she would struggle with burnout and injuries in an effort to return to form. 

Grace having fun in 2005

Se Ri struggled in 2005

Last week at the first Major of the 2010 season, it was suddenly like it was 2003 all over again.  OK, perhaps not quite, but for the first time in recent memory, both Se Ri Pak and Grace Park finished in the top 20 of a tournament.  Pak notched a tie for 15th, while Grace finished tied for 10th, her first top ten in four and a half years.  This was not the dominating Pak and Park of old, of course, but at least it was a sign that the two stars may have more to say and do in the coming years. 

For Se Ri, the Nabisco has always been the tournament that got away.  In her rookie year, before her 21st birthday, she already captured the LPGA Championship and the US Women’s Open.  The British Open came a few years later in 2001.  She only needed the Nabisco to complete her career Grand Slam.  But for some reason, she just was never on top of her game when that tournament came around.  She finally had her best chance to win it in 2007, when she relentlessly clung onto a spot near the top of the leaderboard for three rounds.  In the final round, she rose to a several stroke lead, and seemed primed to take the victory dive into Poppy’s pond at last.  But at that very moment, Suzann Pettersen made a run into the lead, and Se Ri, in trying to catch her, collapsed.  A few holes later, Pettersen, too, fell apart, and Morgan Pressel, who had finished her round hours earlier, became the surprise winner of the event.  Oh, what could have been: had Se Ri just played even par golf on the back nine, she might have won the tournament.  Of course, she could not have known that Pettersen was going to implode, but coming so close to capturing the prize must have been intensely frustrating for the hyper competitive Hall of Famer. 

Se Ri at the Nabisco, 2007

For Grace Park, the Nabisco was the site of her greatest golf triumph.  She remains the only Korean golfer to ever win the event, an amazing feat considering that every other Major has been won at least three times by Koreans in the past.  The year was 2004, and Grace would go on to be the second ranked golfer on tour by the end of the season, ahead of even Se Ri for the first time.  But Park would not have an easy time of it capturing her first Major.  The young rookie Aree Song, who had made her first mark in LPGA golf when she finished tenth at this very event as a 13-year-old, was in her group, the final group of the day.  Grace had the lead as they reached the 18th hole, but it was only a one shot cushion.  Song went for the green in two while Grace laid up.  Park put her approach to within 6 feet, but if Song were to make the eagle putt, it would force Grace to make the birdie to win the title.  And indeed, Song did make the eagle, pumping her fist in ecstasy while the crowd exploded.  Grace admitted later that she had never been so nervous as when she stepped over that straightforward putt, but she drained the birdie and made history for Korea. 

Grace takes the Nabisco victory dive, 2004

Grace’s story was not a happy one after that, however.  Starting in 2005, injuries began to plague her, so much so that it became difficult for her to play for any length of time without having to deal with another ache or pain.  She plunged from the top of the money list, at times making less than $100,000 in an entire season (she had often made that amount in a single event in years past).  After a top ten at the 2005 CJ 9 Bridges, in defense of her title, she would not appear in the top ten again until this past week.  In 2009, she only managed to play a few events before injuries forced her to skip the rest of the season.  After surgery on her hip, she took the rest of the year off, dealing not only with recovering physically but with burnout that had left her not wanting to play the game at all.  But a magical thing happened to her during those long months.  She found herself regaining the hunger, the competitive fire, that had been missing in her for quite some time.  By the end of the year, she couldn’t wait to get back on the course to compete.  

Se Ri’s downfall was more sudden and somewhat more baffling.  After she won her 22nd event in 2004 to officially qualify for the LPGA Hall of Fame (all she had to do was wait until she had been on tour for ten years before she could be inducted), she suddenly seemed to lose all her motivation for even being out there.  She played abysmally the rest of the year, and 2005 proved to be the very worst of her career.  Her ability to hit the ball straight off the tee had completely abandoned her, and her driving accuracy plummeted to, at times, less than 50% of fairways hit.  You are not going to make a lot of cuts with numbers like that, let alone win tournaments.  Se Ri managed to bounce back somewhat after that, winning a Major in 2006 and another event in 2007, and coming close a few other times.  But the days when she would notch 15+ top tens in a season seemed in the past. 

Se Ri in 2006, on the road back

Which brings us to 2010, and the Kraft Nabisco Championship.  Grace missed the cut at the first event she played in 2010, but the Nabisco, her second event, went far better.  Grace raised the hopes of all her fans by turning in a one under par 71 in her first round, to move into a tie for 14th.  But the real test would come on day two.  Grace had shown herself capable of shooting one good round from time to time, but seemed to always follow that up with a pretty bad one.  Well, her second round at the Kraft was indeed her worst of the week; but it was still a fairly sturdy two over par 74, which, in a Major, is not that bad at all.  This left her tied for 24th and still very much in the hunt for the crown. 

Grace, round 1, 2010 Nabisco

Se Ri had a much tougher go of it in the first two rounds.  Indeed, her first round was so bad that it left her in danger of missing the cut entirely.  She produced a fairly dismal 7 over par 79 that left her close to the bottom of the entire field.  Fortunately, Se Ri made a major turnaround on day two, summoning a 71 to move back up to 6 over.  That proved to be just enough for her to make the cut on the number.  And that’s when the fun started. 

Se Ri, round 1, 2010 Nabisco

Saturday at the Nabisco was a gentle reminder of just how incredible Pak and Park really were in their heyday.   For Se Ri, who was among the first to go out this day, everything was working.  Her driving was once again sharp and mostly straight, and very long, as always.  And when she was missing fairways, she was only a few feet off the short grass, not way off in the trees somewhere.  Best of all, her confidence with her putting returned.  She announced her intentions right away with an eagle on the second hole, and collected three more birdies through her round without a single over par hole.  Her 5 under par 67 tied her for the low round of the day and moved her from a tie for last place to 26th place.  She was still too far back to have a chance to win, but she had every right to be proud of what she had done. 

Grace played just as well as Se Ri on Saturday, shooting a 68 to move into the top ten and give herself an outside chance at claiming the trophy.  Remember that, unlike Se Ri, she had not even had a top ten finish in four and a half years.  But on this day she made six birdies and two bogies.  She would play the final round paired with the Koreans’ best young player, Jiyai Shin. 

Grace, round 4, 2010 Nabisco

Grace never really got into rhythm on Sunday, but she still had a very solid performance, shooting a 73 to finish tied for 10th in the clubhouse.  Then she had to wait to see if someone would knock her out of the top ten.  Fortunately, it didn’t happen, and she had that elusive top ten finish at last.  Se Ri had a better Sunday, shooting a 70 that included another eagle, this time on the 11th hole.  She had gone 8 under in her final three rounds at a Major, a fantastic achievement.  If only her first round had been even halfway decent, she might have finally won the Nabisco for her career Grand Slam.  But she still managed to climb to a tie for 15th and a one under par total, simply incredible considering where she had been after Thursday’s action. 

Time will tell whether these superstars of yesteryear have conquered their demons and will give the young guns something to worry about this year and beyond.  But the signs are certainly good.  And for all those, like myself, who became interested in this sport thanks in large part to those two, we can only say – welcome back!  

Grace smiles for my camera, 2003

 

Se Ri Pak, 2006

  

  

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Responses

  1. Well…what can I say…a superb entry featuring my two favorite golfers…male or female…in the world…for any Seoul Sister fan, this should be required reading! 🙂

  2. […] 15 after opening with a 7-over in the first round…a great read for all Grace and Se Ri fans… Se Ri Pak/Grace Park: Party Like it’s 1999! SeoulSisters __________________ You cannot teach a man anything, you can only help him to find it within […]

  3. […] cosplay y más. . University Park Arts Fair & Food Fest at Grace Park « Arts Quest . Se Ri Pak/Grace Park: Party Like it’s 1999! « SeoulSisters var […]

  4. Grace Parks has always been my favorite on the LPGA. I really miss her.


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