The 40th anniversary of Title IX has been celebrated all around the country this summer, at all levels of sport, with tributes to the great female athletes of our time.
But one of the most influential female athletes of this generation has been largely overlooked.
No woman in recent history has revolutionized an entire sport like Se Ri Pak. Not Martina Navratilova, Mia Hamm, Lisa Leslie, nor Annika Sorenstam … none of the names on a recent list of top 40 influential female athletes of the last 40 years.
Ten of the last 15 U.S. Women's Open Champions, including Na Yeon Choi at Blackwolf Run on Sunday, were born in South Korea. Their drive to grow up and play golf at its highest level is all due to Pak, a hero of Choi's who won a thrilling playoff on the very same course in 1998 and quite literally changed history in her native country.
"She is probably the most significant female athlete in Korean history," says Rick Phillips of the Korean Cultural Center of Los Angeles. "Since she won some majors in the mid-'90s, she pretty much inspired legions of female golfers in South Korea."
Those golfers are now dominating women's golf, and have been for a while. Only two players finished under par at the U.S. Open: Choi and Amy Yang – both from South Korea. Of the top 10 at Blackwolf Run this weekend, four are from South Korea, including Pak herself, who finished ninth. Many expected Tiger Woods' arrival in golf at around the same time Pak arrived in the '90s to bequeath a "Tiger Boom" of minorities. That never materialized. But the Pak Boom is stronger than ever. None of the 10 major championships won by Koreans would have happened if not for Pak.
It began at this very same Wisconsin course, when Pak – only 20 at the time – took off her shoes to play from a water hazard on her 72nd hole to force a Monday playoff that went for 20 holes before Pak finally defeated 20-year-old amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. The sight of the stark tan lines on her ankles spoke to an entire nation about the young woman's work ethic, and girls in a often-chauvinistic society have been intensely practicing golf ever since. More than a third of the top 100 players on the LPGA Tour are from South Korea, which is nothing less than a miracle when you consider the nation is tiny and mountainous. It's almost comparable to something as preposterous as if a third of NFL players hailed from Iceland.
It's not just that the wave of Korean players wants to win like Pak; they play like her, too. This weekend was a classic example of the steely nerve that allowed Pak to win five majors and has propelled her to a perfect 6-0 lifetime record in playoffs. The names you know – Creamer, Kerr, Wie, Petterson – all struggled to come up with the clutch putt in the heat of Blackwolf Run. But Choi, who watched Pak win the U.S. Open when she was only 9, had 26 one-putts in the tournament. And after a triple bogey at No. 10 on Sunday that briefly impacted her five-shot lead, Choi made birdie on three of the next six holes to climb back. The Koreans are not big hitters, nor are they flashy to watch, but on the greens they are assassins. They have the kind of mental makeup that's amazing not only in women's golf, but in any sport played anywhere.
Choi is only the latest. She has battled scoliosis, according to her former trainer, Andrea Daddato, and in 2009 at age 21 she instructed her parents to stay home in Korea. And even though she is still mastering English and only 24 years old, she could use all the support she can get during what is a long and draining LPGA calendar. The tour has struggled over the years not only to promote the Koreans effectively but also support them with interpreters and guidance for what can be an overwhelming culture shock. (The LPGA has only one staffer who speaks Korean.) But any player breakdowns, when they happen, are hidden from public view by a deep pride and a commitment to "saving face." The Korean women all have difficulty adjusting to American society, but very few show signs of trouble on the course. They just keep winning, no matter what the pressure from overbearing parents or crushing societal expectations back home.
That drive also comes from Pak, who was hospitalized from exhaustion after her groundbreaking season upon her return to South Korea in the fall of 1998. She would burn out on more than one occasion over the course of her career, and yet here she was again in 2012 with another top-10 finish. She is the youngest living entrant into the World Golf Hall of Fame – man or woman. She was 30 at induction, and she is still only 34 years old, younger than most of the legends on this summer's Title IX list, and younger than Title IX itself.
There are plenty of slogans these days about changing the game. It's almost a cliché now, pushed on us by athletic companies and energy drinks. But Se Ri Pak did just that. Na Yeon Choi's triumph today, in the literal footsteps of Pak, is only further proof. Pak didn't get any benefit from Title IX, but in the same way that legislation made sports a better place, Pak caused a tidal wave that will ripple long after she's gone.
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