From Hall of Famer to tournament host: Seri Pak happy to give others a grand opportunity

From Hall of Famer to tournament host: Seri Pak happy to give others a grand opportunity

By Jeff Babineau

 

Seri Pak has spent most of her life, it seems, chasing some sort of dream. When she first took up golf as a teen in South Korea, golf was a sport for people the ages of her parents and grandparents. But she kept working at it, chasing a dream of becoming pro.

 

After early success on the fledgling Korean LPGA, she followed a path to a new dream: to move to the U.S. and play on the LPGA. Though she spoke barely any English, she made the bold step, and by 20 had won two professional majors. She was not yet 30 when she qualified for the World Golf Hall of Fame. 

 

When she walked away from the game as a competitor in 2016, there was one more dream: to see a day when an LPGA tournament would carry her name. 

 

Pak’s time is now. This week in Los Angeles, a world-class field will join the Korean legend who inspired a steady drumbeat of national success at the inaugural FIR HILLS SERI PAK Championship at Palos Verdes Golf Club.

 

Pak, at 46, joins Annika Sorenstam and Michelle Wie, two fellow former U.S. Open champions, in playing host to her own LPGA event. Golf can be difficult, and she relishes the chance to give younger players a great playing opportunity, doing so for “honor and glory.”

 

“Annika has her tournament a couple years, and as players, everybody wants it, dreams about it,” Pak said as she readies to welcome LPGA tournament players back stateside after a tournament swing through Asia.

 

“It is probably a new dream, actually,” Pak said.

 

This won’t be the first time that Palos Verdes hosts the best talent from the LPGA. But Fir Hills, the Korean-based sponsor – as well as a commitment from an LPGA Hall of Famer who won 39 times internationally, including 25 times on the LPGA – is something new to be respected and cherished.

 

Ten of the top 15 players in the world are committed to play, including World No. 1 Lilia Vu, a two-time major champion in 2023; No. 2 Nelly Korda, the reigning Olympic gold medalist; and Ruoning Yin of China, ranked fourth. Yin was relatively unknown when she visited Palos Verdes a year ago and won. A few months later, she became a major champion at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Baltusrol.

 

There are a handful of top players in this week’s field who were college standouts at USC or UCLA, some of whom played the course often in their college years and still play and practice there. Any player who is part of this week’s field feels the extra boost and excitement that having Pak brings to the tournament.

 

“It’s so cool to see, Seri hosting an LPGA event here, especially at Palos Verdes,” said Andrea Lee, an Asian-American player and former Stanford standout who is a longtime member at PV. “She’s an absolute legend in the game. She was the pioneer for women’s golf in Korea.

 

“So this is going to be a really special week for all of us, especially the Korean LPGA players who looked up to her for so long, but also for me, too. It’s really cool that she’s hosting this event at one of my home courses in L.A.”

 

One of Pak’s special exemptions was extended to former World No. 1 Jiyai Shin, a longtime friend who was one of many young players who was inspired to try golf because of Pak. Shin doesn't play much in the U.S. outside of major championships. 

 

Golf wasn’t a sport that many athletes in the Republic of Korea played when Pak showed up on the LPGA in the late 1990s, helped to start a revolution in the game. Korea now boasts such female golf champions such as Inbee Park (seven major titles), Jin Young Ko, Hyo-Jee Kim and In-Gee Chun. Park is taking time away from the game after becoming a first-time mother, but Ko and Kim each rank inside the top 10. There are four Korean players currently ranked 18th or higher, and 27 players from the country among the top 100 players in the world.

 

Pak was the spark. Young schoolgirls in Korea were inspired to try golf after watching a daily national morning pride video that showed great accomplishments of sportsmen and sportswomen from Korea One example shown over and over was a young Pak winning the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin in 1998. She was 20.

 

In addition to winning the U.S. Open and Women’s PGA Championship that season on the way to LPGA Rookie of the Year honors, Pak would add two more Women’s PGAs as well as the Women’s British Open in 2001. A powerful player who drew strength from rigorous training her father supervised when she was a youth, Pak landed 24 LPGA titles and all five of her majors before reaching her 30th birthday.

 

In 2016, she walked away from competition. Pak stays very busy with work commitments back home in Korea, where she runs her own company, served as host of a KLPGA event for several years and even works as a broadcaster. She knew the time was right to leave the game when she did.

 

Does she miss playing?

 

“No, not at all,” Pak said, flashing her famously bright smile. “I knew it. I really knew I was never going to miss it and never going to come back. That’s just my 110 percent.”

 

Still, she can look back with great pride with what she started. She put in the work, she set the example, and many others would follow behind her. She was the only competitor from South Korea when she joined the LPGA in 1998. When she left, there were nearly 50 players from her country playing on tour. This is an Olympic year, and once again, the most difficult team to make will be Korea. Golf has Pak to thank for that.

 

“Well, I’m still trying to get used to those years still (looking back to the 1990s), but I know that since 1998 many players have been inspired by me, and (I) have instilled hope and confidence,” she said.

 

A generation of talented players would follow her lead. This week many will get to say “thank you” to the one who started it all. And Seri Pak gets to realize yet another dream in a life that has been filled with them.

 

March 19, 2024
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