Posted by: happyfan08 | July 3, 2012

Back in Black(Wolf)

One of the greatest moments in South Korean sports history happened not in Korea, but on a golf course called Blackwolf Run in the small town of Kohler, Wisconsin.  In July of 1998, 20 year old Se Ri Pak was attempting to become the first Korean golfer to ever win the US Women’s Open.  After 72 holes, she was tied with another 20 year old, a Thai- American amateur named Jenny Chuasiriporn.  They played an 18 hole Monday playoff, but after 17 holes, they were still tied.  Then Pak hit her drive on the 18th hole dangerously close to the water on the left.  Across the Pacific, an entire nation held its breath.

What happened next is indelibly etched in the minds of millions of Korean fans who had stayed up all through the night to watch the playoff as it happened.  Times were tough back then.  South Korea, which for decades had been on an economic upswing, suddenly found itself in crisis, forced to get a bailout from the International Monetary Fund.  The people needed a pick-me-up, and Pak delivered.  The ball sat perched in the grass near the water.  She could do a drop and take a penalty stroke.  Or she could try to hit the shot , a risky play. After spending several minutes assessing the situation, Pak calmly removed her shoes, revealing pale white feet that contrasted with the deep tan on the rest of her body.  She stepped into the water and hit the shot out onto the fairway.  She went on to tie Chuasiriporn on that hole, forcing sudden death, which she won two holes later.

Se Ri hits out of the water at the 1998 US Women’s Open. The shot that launched a revolution.

Rarely has a single moment changed an entire sport, but this one did.  South Korea went golf crazy.  Se Ri Pak, in taking her shoes off to get the job done, was the right lady at the right time for the beleaguered nation.  Korean television played Pak’s shot from the water over and over again.  Pakmania gripped the nation.  She was mobbed by reporters when she returned home in the Fall, eventually winding up in a hospital suffering from exhaustion.  Not missing a beat, the reporters followed her into her hospital room, filming her with IVs coming out of her arms and tears rolling down her cheeks.

Overnight, thousands of little Korean girls started playing golf, to be just like Se Ri.  Those players worked themselves half to death, all in the hopes of becoming the next star to carry on in Pak’s footsteps.  In a matter of just a few years, Korean membership on the LPGA tour exploded.  Only three Koreans had played in the 1998 US Women’s Open.  By 2011, that number had grown to over thirty, with five finishing in the top ten, and two vying for the title in a playoff.  Before Pak, there had been just three Korean victories on the LPGA tour.  Since that time, that number has ballooned to nearly 100. Before Pak, no Korean had won a Major on the LPGA.  As of mid 2012, 8 other Koreans have captured Major titles on the LPGA, and one on the PGA.   In 2012, there are over forty full-time Korean players on the LPGA, and a third of the top 100 woman golfers in the world hail from that country.  And all because Se Ri won the ’98 Open.

So Yeon Ryu & Se Ri Pak walk the Blackwolf Run course in May of this year

Inbee Park was ten years old when she was awakened by her parents watching that tournament.  She so enjoyed what she saw that just a few days later, she took up golf.  Five years later, she won the US Girls Junior championship.  Five years after that, in 2008, she became the youngest player to win the US Women’s Open at 19 years of age, breaking Pak’s record.

Na Yeon Choi had been playing junior golf before Se Ri’s win.  She says that after Pak’s win, the number of girls playing tournaments skyrocketed.  It was the singular event that convinced her she could contend and win on an international circuit like the LPGA.  “I think a lot of Korean people didn’t believe a Korean could win on the LPGA Tour”, Choi said in a recent interview.  “But when I watched her play, when she made the winning, I changed my goal… we have to go to the LPGA and try to win. That is our goal. I think she makes all the people (dream) bigger.”  In 2004, Choi won her first KLPGA event as a high school student, beating her visiting idol Pak, who finished second.  She went on to become the number 2 player in the world, winning five LPGA tournaments, and in 2010 earned a Vare Trophy for low scoring average, becoming only the second Korean to lead the LPGA money list that year.

Na Yeon Choi was the third Korean to win the trophy for low scoring average on the LPGA

Jiyai Shin was another one of those young girls who was inspired to play the game by Pak.  Like Choi, she won her first KLPGA event while still an amateur.  She joined that tour in 2006, and in 2007 broke many of Pak’s records by winning 9 times, including a sweep of the three Majors.  The next year, she won three LPGA events before joining that tour, including the Ricoh British Women’s Open.  Soon after, she became the first, and thus far only, Korean woman to attain the #1 ranking in the world.

Jiyai Shin was the first and thus far only Korean to ever become #1 in the world. She has won 8 times on the LPGA tour.

As seismic as Pak’s win was for women’s golf in Korea, it had a far reaching effect throughout golf.  YE Yang, when he became the first Korean to win a PGA Major winner, made sure to mention Se Ri’s achievement during his victory interviews.  Ai Miyazato of Japan and Ya Ni Tseng of Taiwan, both top stars on the LPGA today, cite Pak as an important role model.

This year, the US Women’s Open returns to Blackwolf Run for the first time since Pak’s win, and the anticipation is running high for the Korean players and fans.  In late May, Pak and 2011 US Women’s Open Champ So Yeon Ryu appeared at a media day in Kohler.   Ryu also played the course for the first time, with Pak tagging along to give her pointers.  It was a dream come true for the 21 year old Ryu, who had grown up idolizing Pak.  When they got to the 18th hole, Ryu could not resist taking her shoes off and getting her photo taken at the iconic water trap, even though it was not filled with water (it will be during the tournament, fortunately).  You have to believe that photo opportunity will be irresistible to any Korean player during the practice rounds!

Although the iconic water hazard was not filled, So Yeon Ryu could not resist taking her shoes off for a photo anyway

Later, the two players met the press.  “Before 1998, golf was not a famous sport in Korea,” said Ryu, who was seven years old that year.  “After [she] won, golf is a really famous sport, and that’s why I am here”.  Like so many other girls, Ryu only seriously took up the game after Pak’s win.  Pak added, “Se Ri Pak was born at the US Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run”.

Ryu and Pak had a laugh with Herb Kohler when the two Koreans visited Blackwolf Run in May

Se Ri injured her shoulder back in April, and it looked like her reappearance at this venue was in doubt.  But she stunned everyone by appearing at the LPGA Championship in June, even leading the tournament after the second round.  She said she was 200% sure she would be at the Open, and had even visited Korean neighborhoods in nearby Chicago to drum up fan support for the big week.  One thing’s for sure: if Se Ri plays this year anything like she did in 1998, millions of Koreans may be in for another sleepless night!

Se Ri and the 1998 US Women’s Open trophy

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Responses

  1. […] Original post: Back in Black(Wolf) « SeoulSisters […]

  2. I recently posted a poem to commemorate Na Yeon Choi’s Open victory. You can read it at http://bit.ly/NmkRrX. I hope you will enjoy it. Leon S White, PhD (www.golfpoet.com)

  3. […] https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/back-in-blackwolf/ […]

  4. […] context on the significance of the USGA’s returning to Blackwolf Run, you can’t beat Happy Fan‘s pre-tournament post (although the USGA’s U.S. Women’s Open championship site […]


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