KOHLER, Wisconsin — When Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women’s Open in 1998, the last time it was at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, she changed the U.S. LPGA Tour forever.
Since then, a generation of inspired South Korean women have transformed the tour with their victories and character. But Pak said on Tuesday she has always worried about whether she was handling her status the right way.
“It’s everybody. They say, ‘I’m playing golf because of Se Ri,’” Pak said of her fellow South Koreans. “I had a lot of pressure because I don’t know (if) I’m leading the right way. That was the biggest (concern). Now I feel really proud and very happy. I’m very proud of them, of my country.”
She should be: 36 South Koreans are ranked in the top 100 and they have won three of the last four U.S. Opens. They idolize Pak and even So Yeon Ryu, who won last year, said: “She is my hero.”
American golfer Cristie Kerr said she believes the Asians, who include Taiwanese Yani Tseng, the world’s top-ranked golfer, have been good for women’s golf.
“It’s a different world we live in now,” Kerr said. “Golf has become such an international sport, especially in Asia. They’re just crazy for golf over there. It’s a very global thing now. We have a really talented tour, an international tour.”
Pak, of course, has proved that her win was no fluke. She has won 25 tournaments including five majors, and in 2007 at age 30 became the youngest golfer inducted into the U.S. LPGA Hall of Fame.
“I was a lucky person,” Pak said. “I’ve done everything I was dreaming for.”
This week’s U.S. Open will be played on the same layout as in 1998, a combination of Blackwolf Run’s River and Meadow Valley courses. Pak remembers how difficult the course was in 1998 and it will be longer this year at 6,954 yards (6,359 meters) compared with 6,412 (5,863). Par will be 72 instead of 71 because the 7th hole was changed to par 5.
“I think that’s a very good move. It’s a little more fair,” Kerr said.
The bunker on the left side of 18, a 445-yard par 4, will again be filled with water. Pete Dye built it so it could be flooded to create an intimidating water hazard for pro tournaments.
Pak said she was happy officials decided to fill it again, even though the hole almost became a watery grave for her 1998 title hopes during the playoff with amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn.
Pak had hit her drive into rough bordering the water hazard. She took her shoes and socks off, and waded into the water to hit a solid shot that extended the match, which she won on the 20th hole with a long birdie putt.
Coming into this year’s event, Pak has not won since the 2010 Bell Micro LPGA Championship. But she has two top-10 finishes in 2012 despite a dislocated left shoulder that sidelined her earlier this year.
She credits her fine play to excitement over returning to Blackwolf Run.
“It’s really special,” Pak said.