LAS VEGAS -- The fortune cookies cracked open and everyone pulled out the white slips of paper, passing them around the table and sharing a laugh. Se Ri Pak, happier than ever, was having the time of her life.
Her jet-black hair was streaked with magenta, a snap decision during a recent trip home to South Korea. Pak read the fortune, taking a moment for the message to sink in.
"You will lose the small ones, but win the big treasure," she read slowly and softly.
Then she looked up and broke into a smile that could have lighted up the Strip.
"Tonight," she announced, "we go to casino."
As it turned out, Pak indeed lost the small ones -- $60 in the slot machines at The Desert Inn -- but won the big treasure, a playoff victory over Karrie Webb and Laura Davies in the season-ending LPGA Tour Championship.
The victory was her fourth of the year, all of them since the middle of June, and proved that her rock-solid game will carry her to many more victories, and quite possibly many more showdowns with Webb.
But her week in Las Vegas revealed something far more important than birdies and bogeys. She is 22 and may not have command of the English language, but she has taken control of her life.
She sets her own schedule, takes care of her own laundry, picks out her own restaurants, hangs out with her own friends.
The scene in the Las Vegas restaurant was a far cry from a year ago in Windsor, Ontario, on the eve of the du Maurier Classic, where Pak had a chance to become the first rookie to win three majors in a year.
She was a weary soul who picked at her food as a stream of people filtered in and out, making plans and making deals.
"Other time, so many people around," she said. "I have to do 20, 30 things at the same time together. Just cannot handle that. Now I'm so happy. I just take care of myself. I laundry myself, and practice myself and I travel myself and everything. More fun."
A year ago, she finished her first round of the season in Orlando, Fla., and was approached by a reporter.
"No, no, no," interrupted her Korean manager. "No time for interviews. She has migraine headache. She must practice."
A few months ago, caddie Jeff "Tree" Cable went to her hotel at 8 a.m. because Pak said she wanted to play a practice round at 10 a.m. When he called her room, the voice on the other end of the phone was groggy.
"Maybe today we practice at noon," Pak told him.
As for the English lessons? She bagged those a year ago, tired of classes in which she repeated worthless phrases over and over again.
"All the time repeat ... blah, blah, blah," she said. "I can't learn anything. I ask people how can I learn quickly. They said, 'No matter what, you have to keep talking.' I just make more friends and talk to them, keeping hanging out together. More better than taking lessons. And it's free."
Pak deserves high marks for the adjustments she has made in America over the past year, and for the steady improvement in her game.
No, she didn't win two majors the way she did a year ago, but she lowered her scoring average from 71.41 to 70.77, had two more top-10 finishes than last year and won the same number of tournaments.
She managed all this without a swing coach, deciding against replacing David Leadbetter when she dropped him at the end of last year.
"I think she's grown up a little bit," Webb said. "She's as good as she was last year, if not better. She plays her own game more. I think she doesn't rely on Tree as much. She does a lot more of her own thing out there."
There will be no trips home to South Korea this year, no parades or presidential declarations. Pak was pushed and pulled in so many directions at the end of last season that she was hospitalized for exhaustion during her homecoming celebration.
Tour officials were aghast when Samsung, her primary sponsor, showed up at the hospital to see if Pak would be able to play.
That was cleared up when day-to-day management was turned over to IMG in January, and agent Jay Burton deserves much of the credit for Pak's newfound freedom.
She will play the Mixed Team Classic in Tampa, Fla., next month with Paul Azinger, and take the rest of her time for herself.
"Last year, I don't have any time. It's still so many things to do," she said. "This year, offseason, I just want to go somewhere, nobody knows. I just want to do fun thing. I want to go with my new friends on trip or some party every night."
Se Ri Pak, like the fortune says, is winning the big treasure.
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