2016 espnW Lifetime Achievement Award: South Korean golf pioneer Se Ri Pak
When Se Ri Pak was a 20-year-old LPGA rookie in 1998, rocketing to fame in her native South Korea by winning the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women's Open, she was the only player from that country on tour. This season, Pak's last as a competitor, there were 34 Koreans on the increasingly international circuit. At the end of the 2016 LPGA season, eight of the top 15 players in the Rolex Rankings, and 23 of the top 50, were from South Korea. The No. 1 player in the world, Lydia Ko of New Zealand, is South Korean-born.
Pak retires at age 39 with 25 LPGA victories, including five major titles, and a place in golf as one of its premier pioneers. Another South Korean, Ok-Hee Ku, was the first to play and win on the LPGA Tour, but her 1988 victory did not resonate back home like Pak's major victories 18 years ago.
Pak's exciting 1998 Open triumph, in a playoff over amateur Jenny Chausiriporn at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, ignited a flurry of interest in the game among girls and their parents in South Korea. It didn't take long for female golfers from that nation, which has a population less than one-sixth of the United States, to become an important part of the LPGA. Forty South Koreans have won 152 of the 557 LPGA tournaments played since Pak's victory at Blackwolf Run.
Other Asian countries have followed South Korea's lead. Thirteen players from Thailand had LPGA cards in 2016, and one of them, Ariya Jutanugarn, was a breakout star, winning five times.
Plagued by a left shoulder injury, Pak had two goodbye tournaments in 2016, at the U.S. Women's Open in July and the LPGA KEB HanaBank Championship in Incheon, South Korea, in October. There were tears and hugs and flowers at each, but mostly there were thanks -- for the memories and inspiration, for clearing a trail to a vista now enjoyed by many. For the many achievements over her career, we honor Pak with the 2016 espnW Lifetime Achievement Award.
Those who knew her best on and around the golf course shared their thoughts with espnW about the impact Pak had on the game:
"I didn't come to the LPGA until 2010. I knew about Se Ri as a fan. When we were sitting in Korea at the HanaBank Championship in October, we were having a tribute to her. We were up on a podium. I looked out to 3,000 people, but the first hundred were young Korean tour players and their brothers and sisters and moms and dads. They were crying. I remember sitting there thinking, 'This is Michael Jordan of Korea.' I guess I knew that as a fan, but it was amazing to see that. Chella Choi was sideways. In Gee Chun. Inbee Park. It was really a gripping moment. I told Se Ri later that all of us are trying to make a meaningful, lasting impact on the game and none of us know if we're doing it. She has done that forever, and not just in women's golf. I think she changed golf in Korea. In Korea, they ask her about the impact she made in Korean golf, but she made an impact in Asian golf. It's really unbelievable, she just put it on the map. It's kind of like what they said was going to happen with the U.S. women's soccer team, with the big win. But it didn't have the same kind of instant impact that she had. And the lasting impact Se Ri has had is unbelievable."
-- Mike Whan, LPGA commissioner
"Se Ri is a trailblazer from South Korea who became one of the most important players in the history of the LPGA. She had a quick impact by winning two major championships in her rookie year. She was one of the best players in the world for several years and inspired an entire generation of players who are currently dominating the LPGA. Se Ri is such a nice person, and she has a great smile. I really enjoyed my time competing against her. She is a wonderful role model for all players."
-- Annika Sorenstam, World Golf Hall of Fame member, 72-time LPGA winner
"Se Ri is a hero in Korea. I started in golf watching her play. It was the same for So Yeon Ryu and Na Yeon Choi. She was very nice to me when I was a rookie. I am so sad she is retiring. When I talked to her at HanaBank, I told her, 'You can change your mind.' But, seriously, I hope her life and future is nice. I hope she is happy. I am very proud and very sad."
-- Chella Choi, one of 34 players from the South Korea on LPGA Tour in 2016
"To be in Korea for her final event, her final round, I wasn't sure I was at a celebration or at a funeral. Everyone was in tears. They were all so emotional over what she's been able to accomplish and what she's been able to do for golf in that country. You see the effects out here on tour every day -- the incredibly strong, talented players who were all inspired by her. There are very few people who have been able to inspire a generation and an entire country, the way Se Ri has been able to do. She did incredibly well with all that pressure on her shoulders. I had the pleasure of playing many years on tour with Se Ri. I loved every round we played together. She is a role model for everybody, not just for the country of South Korea, but she truly is a role model for any golfer aspiring to pick up the game. When I [was] first kind of getting into golf, it was Se Ri, Karrie [Webb] and Annika [Sorenstam]. They were the top three players. And all three inspired me tremendously to pick up the game and to play with them and against them. It was pretty surreal to be able to do that. The game owes a lot to Se Ri. She's done a tremendous amount for women's golf."
-- Morgan Pressel, LPGA member since 2006, 2007 Kraft Nabisco Championship winner
"She inspired so many young Korean players. She's just such a class act, a great, great player with a beautiful swing -- everything you would want in a player. We'll miss her. She opened the door for all of the little Korean girls who were looking for somebody to follow. She has become their idol. They're out here trying to accomplish what she has. Players like Se Ri feel a lot of pressure from their country. She's a rock star."
-- Nancy Lopez, World Golf Hall of Fame member, 48-time LPGA winner
"She is the one who opened the door for all the Korea players. I get asked a lot about why there are so many Korean players playing so well. There are many reasons, but one of the important ones is that we always had a really good role model. Se Ri was that role model. She played well, then Inbee Park started to play well. We are able to continue to have a good model. But Se Ri was the first. When I first started to play on the tour, she told me that having a good balance in her life is the most important thing. To me, she was a great inspiration and great adviser. I played with Se Ri this year for the first two rounds at the U.S. Open, which was the retirement tournament for her. I saw her tear up in her eyes. It was very emotional. I didn't expect I was going to cry when she said goodbye, but I cried a lot. It is a sad loss, but I know she is going to have a great life, and I am rooting for her."
-- So Yeon Ryu, 2011 U.S. Women's Open champion