The face of golf is getting younger and younger, and perhaps the best of the young women is Se Ri Pak. At last week's U.S. Women's Open in Kohler, Wis., the 20-year-old South Korean sensation overcame the diabolical Pete Dye-designed Blackwolf Run, which was punching out double bogeys the way the nearby plumbing-fixture factory punches out faucets. While shrugging off putting lapses that would have sent a less serene player around the bend, Pak also conquered the player who appeared to be destiny's child, amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn, also 20, whose silky game and nothing-to-lose approach made her immune to the maddening effects of the most demanding championship that the women play.
Pak would have been forgiven if she had lost her grip. Shortly after making bogey from the greenside rough at the 71st hole on Sunday, she heard the roar from the 18th green after Chuasiriporn holed a spine-chilling 45-foot birdie putt to tie for the lead. Then Pak missed a 10-foot birdie putt for the win. It left the two women tied at six-over-par 290, the highest winning score at the U.S. Women's Open since 1984, when Hollis Stacy won with a two-over 290 at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass.
The pressure was clearly on the favored Pak going into Monday's 18-hole playoff, but she found a way to diffuse it. Speaking in fractured English, Pak said of Chuasiriporn after Sunday's round, "She is my age, that is why maybe we are like friends, like more close. So maybe tomorrow feel like practice round."
Anything but. On Monday, Chuasiriporn, a senior at Duke, picked up where she'd left off, holing a 30-foot birdie chip on the 1st hole, and after two more birdies she was a surprising four strokes up going to the par-3 6th. There, however, her impressive swing failed her, as she pulled a nine-iron into a water hazard and three-putted for a triple-bogey six that cut the lead to one.
Pak was two down going to the 11th tee, but she stalked the amateur with flawless tee-to-green play, birdieing three of the next four holes to pull ahead. She bogeyed 15 to fall back into a tie, though, and they were still even at the par-4 18th, where Pak made her worst swing of the day—a quick pull that rolled down the bank of a water hazard. After a lengthy deliberation she took off her shoes and, while standing in the water, hacked the ball across the fairway into the right rough, still 140 yards from the hole. From there she hit an eight-iron to within 20 feet. With victory in her grasp, Chuasiriporn yielded to the pressure, hitting her 45-foot chip so hard that she spun around in disgust a moment after impact. Both players made bogeys, Chuasiriporn missing from 12 feet. "I thought that was going to be it," she said. "But my hands were shaking—a lot." For the first time, the Women's Open championship would be decided in sudden death.
Chuasiriporn had another chance right away but left a 60-yard pitch 30 feet short at the par-5 10th to again let Pak off the hook. "I could feel it slipping away," Chuasiriporn admitted afterward. On the second extra hole she took a strong run at an uphill 20-footer, but when she missed, "I really had a sixth sense she was going to make hers." Always trust a woman's intuition. Pak drilled home her longest putt of the day, an 18-footer, to become the youngest woman to win two majors in one year.
If there was any doubt two months ago, when Pak won the McDonald's LPGA Championship in a wire-to-wire performance to become the youngest winner of a women's major in 30 years, it's evident that she is ready to contend for the No. 1 spot in the women's game. With her victory at Blackwolf Run, she became the youngest champion in Women's Open history and the first woman to win back-to-back majors since Meg Mallon took the same two events in 1991. She also joins Juli Inkster as the only rookie to win two majors in a season. Although two-time U.S. Open winner Annika Sorenstam still stands atop the women's game and Karrie Webb remains the most talented player, Pak seems to possess the mental toughness of the former and the fluid mechanics of the latter. She may also be the hungriest of all. "I want to be the best," she says unabashedly. "That is my dream."
Born in Taejon, South Korea, Pak was a schoolgirl sprinter, hurdler and shot-putter before turning to golf at 14. Over the next four years, under the guidance of her father, Joon Chul, a former professional baseball player and avid golfer who runs a small construction company, Se Ri won more than 30 amateur events in Asia. She turned pro in 1996 and won six Korean LPGA events. In December of that year she signed a 10-year endorsement contract with Samsung, and in early '97 moved to Orlando to work with David Leadbetter, whom Samsung paid a first-year salary of $120,000. Last July she finished 21st in her first U.S. Open and in the fall tied for first at the LPGA qualifying school. By that time she was known throughout Asia as the female Tiger Woods.
Pak is 5'7", 147 pounds, with the powerful thighs and trunk of an elite athlete and the discipline to match. At Leadbetter's academy, Pak routinely puts in 10-hour days. Beyond a smooth action that evokes the swing of Ernie Els, the instructor is most impressed with Pak's temperament. "She's calm, doesn't berate herself and actually seems to like pressure," says Leadbetter. "My biggest problem with Se Ri is keeping her from working too hard."
At night she works hard on improving her English with a taped lesson plan. "Se Ri knows that if she is going to be a breakthrough athlete for Korea, she has to be fluent," says her manager, Steven Sung Yong Kil. "She wants to be comfortable in America." He says that on the Fourth of July, Pak noticed celebrations going on in several Kohler backyards and explained the significance of the holiday to her parents.