Golf: New world of riches for the Korea girl

British Women's Open: Se Ri Pak's first experience of a links course proves tough lesson for outstanding young golfer
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The Independent Online
AS FAR as the commentators were concerned it was the play-off from Hell: Se Ri Pak versus Jenny Chuasiriporn. The former finally put everybody out of their misery by winning the US Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, Wisconsin, in a 20 hole play-off.

If the men's game seems close to a new dawn, in the hands of players like Tiger Woods and Justin Rose, the women's equivalent has Se Ri Pak and 1998 has been her year. At least it was until yesterday morning.

Before going out to play in a pro-am, which preceded the Weetabix British Open at Royal Lytham, the 20-year-old Korean was shown a newspaper which described her as a "gangster's daughter". Pak, who has been brought up by her father, Joon Chul Pak, to keep her emotions under control, particularly in public, burst into tears. According to her manager, Sung Yong Kil, Miss Pak was so distraught that not only could she not eat her Weetabix but she could barely lift a golf club.

He said that the article (which appeared in one of the country's ultra- conservative broadsheets) was a disgrace. Thank goodness the tabloids were not involved.

The article further claimed that Joon Chul had been stabbed in 1998 and was close to death. "He was never a gangster and he was never stabbed," Sung Yong Kil said. "He was attacked once and he was a tough guy but he had a tough upbringing. The United States has very strict immigration laws and he would never have been allowed to move there had he been a gangster. He has no criminal record."

Anyway, Pak dried her tears and gamely took part in the pro-am. "I don't want to tell you my score," she said. "It's a secret." She shot 82, 10 over par. However, she did not blame her demise on the "gangster's daughter" headline, but the fact that she has entered, on the Lancashire coast, a whole new world. It is her first visit to Europe, and the first time she has played a links course.

"Everything was different and difficult," she said. "It was tough. I was a little cold, a little stiff. I have to learn. It was good practice."

At the eighth she managed to lose a ball but, good grief, even Gary Player has managed to do that at Royal Lytham.

No golfer, male or female, has won three major championships as a rookie and this week Pak has the chance to do just that. Prior to that extraordinary victory in the US Open, she had won the McDonald's LPGA. She is already the youngest player to win the US Open and the youngest to win two women's majors in a season. Nor was that the end of the story.

At the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic in Ohio last month she shot 61 in the second round, the lowest score in LPGA history. Her four-round total of 261, 23 under par, was four strokes lower than the existing record. It was her third victory in four weeks and, in her first season, she went to the top of the US money list with almost $800,000 (pounds 500,000).

When he was not being linked to Korea's underworld, Mr Pak, a building constructor from Daejun, about 100 miles south of Seoul, was a useful amateur golfer. His daughter picked up her first club at the age of 11. "I was in a park practising my chip shots," Mr Pak recalled, "and she asked if she could try it. In less than 30 minutes she was gripping the club perfectly and was hitting surprisingly good shots."

The story most often told about their relationship is a spooky one. Four years ago he pitched a tent in the middle of a cemetery. She was, apparently, terrified of cemeteries. Intermittently they spent three months living among the dead. "People said I was crazy, insane, but I wanted to develop her confidence and toughness," Mr Pak said. "At night I would tell her ghost stories and finally one day she said: `I'm warm here'. I knew then her heart was strong and we never went back to the cemetery."

Miss Pak said: "I had respect for my father and I stayed with golf in the beginning because I wanted to prove to people that he wasn't crazy. He was pushing me, pushing me to be better. I knew that. I wanted to make him and my mother proud. And then I began to love golf."

She won 30 tournaments in South Korea before turning professional in 1996 and then she won six out of 14 and finished second seven times. Last year Mr Pak sent his daughter to live in Orlando, Florida, where she has been coached by David Leadbetter, the man who remodelled Nick Faldo's swing. Samsung, the South Korean company that signed Miss Pak in 1996, has been picking up Leadbetter's bill.

The Samsung contract is currently being renegotiated and she is expected to sign, Asian economic crisis or not, a 10-year deal worth at least $10m (pounds 6.2m).

Se Ri Pak has not got off to the best of starts on her maiden voyage to England but, according to Laura Davies, who is one of the favourites for the British Open, the Korea girl cannot be underestimated.

"If you are playing well you can perform in any conditions," Davies said. "I am sure she can play it. It's a tough course but if you're as solid as she is, I wouldn't imagine that she'd consider the wind as a big deal. She's got the game to win anywhere."