Originally created 12/30/98

Se Ri Pak: AP Female Athlete of the Year



First she won the LPGA Championship, then the most memorable U.S. Women's Open in its 53-year history. Se Ri Pak got only better as the galleries got bigger, signs that maybe this was the LPGA's version of Tiger Woods.

"Tiger Out. Pak In," said one sign in the crowd during her astonishing summer of golf.

The comparisons were natural.

Both have that dynamic smile and the knack for winning a major championship in unforgettable fashion. Both were trained in unorthodox manners by fathers obsessed with them becoming a champion.

Now they share something else in common.

Pak, the South Korean rookie who won two majors and took women's golf to its highest level of popularity in 20 years, was honored as Associated Press Female Athlete of the Year on Tuesday in a close vote over Tennessee basketball star Chamique Holdsclaw.

The award comes one year after Woods became the first golfer in 26 years to win AP Male Athlete of the Year.

"Nineteen-ninety-eight is very special for me," Pak said. "I cannot forget this season."

Pak received 19 first-place votes and 156 points in voting by AP member newspaper and broadcast outlets. Holdsclaw, the top player on what many regard as the best women's college basketball team ever, got 142 points.

Tara Lipinski, who won the Olympic gold medal in figure skating, was third with 105 points. Sprinter and long jumper Marion Jones, undefeated in every event this year, was fourth with 101 points, followed by U.S. Open tennis champion Lindsay Davenport.

Holdsclaw (27), Lipinksi (21) and Jones (24) all had more first-place votes than Pak, but Pak was placed on 85 of the 147 ballots, far more than anyone else.

Pak became the first golfer since Beth Daniel in 1990 to win AP Female Athlete of the Year, and the first rookie golfer since Nancy Lopez in 1978.

Not since Lopez won five straight tournaments and nine events in her rookie season has women's golf exploded onto front pages.

"What we could not have anticipated was the emergence of Se Ri Pak," LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts said. "It was one of those stories that captured interest and imagination. It really elevated our visibility."

And it all happened in a span of about 10 weeks.

Pak, who spent a year working with David Leadbetter to get her game in shape for America, didn't even finish in the top 10 in any of her first nine starts until winning the LPGA Championship in May with three rounds in the 60s on a soggy, long course.

Six weeks later, she put her stamp on stardom in the U.S. Women's Open with a captivating duel involving 20-year-old amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn.

Pak rallied from a four-stroke deficit in the 18-hole playoff, but ran into trouble on the 18th hole of Blackwolf Run when her drive stopped on the bank of a creek down the left side. After studying her options, she waded calf-deep into the water, chipped out across the fairway and salvaged bogey.

Chuasiriporn missed a 10-foot par putt to send the playoffs into extra holes. Pak won on the 92nd hole -- the longest tournament in LPGA history -- with an 18-foot birdie putt, then broke down in tears as her father embraced her.

"First time I cry in my life," she said.

She became the youngest Women's Open champion and the first rookie since Juli Inkster in 1984 to win two majors in one year. Those were the only two tournaments Inkster won that year.

Pak followed her second major by setting two LPGA scoring records a week later -- a 61 in the second round of the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic, and a 261 for 72 holes for her third victory.

Two weeks later, she won again, beating Dottie Pepper down the stretch in the Giant Eagle Classic.

Pakmania was born.

"I always expected great things of her, but there's no way anyone could have foreseen the things she did," Leadbetter said. "She a special girl and a great talent. She exciting, and she's given the LPGA a breath of fresh air as Tiger has done for the men's tour."

But Woods' arrival had been anticipated for years, especially having appeared on talk shows at age 2, winning every junior title around and becoming the first player to win the U.S. Amateur three years in a row.

Pak didn't pick up a club until she was 14, but was trained like few others.

While Earl Woods used to jingle coins in his pocket to teach his son focus, Jun-Chul Pak adopted more bizarre methods. He made Pak walk the stairs in their apartment forward and backward to build leg strength.

He made her spend the night in a cemetery to help her conquer fear. And he took her to pit bull fights to make her mentally tough.

"People say I look focused," Pak said. "Sometimes I don't have nice face. Sometimes poker face."

But she wasn't a robot, either.

Her struggle with English was compensated with a megawatt smile she could turn on like a switch. She developed a friendship with Lopez, her idol, and giggled like a schoolgirl whenever she won a hole in a skins game during practice rounds.

"She has a lot of pressure to be the next superstar, and she could be if you let her," Lopez said.

Pak was treated like one. Before long, galleries swarmed to see her in much the same way they were drawn to Woods. Unlike other LPGA stars, Pak thrived in the spotlight.

"They feel like friends," Pak said. "They make big loud."

With two major championships, two scoring records and a rookie season that women's golf hasn't seen in 20 years, Pak made the biggest loud of all.