It was 1997 and nobody knew her and she knew no one. The language was foreign, the food was otherworldly, the travel was new and hard. Se Ri Pak was 19 years old, a sponsor exemption in her first-ever LPGA Tour event, and she was a lost and forlorn-looking soul. She was the only Korean playing in the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic.
Boy, have things changed.
Pak is a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame. It took her 10 years. At age 29 she became the youngest golfer in history to qualify for the honor.
Today 41 South Koreans are on the LPGA’s roster.
Five of the last six winners of Toledo’s tour event were Korean. When Na Yeon Choi won the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic in 2010, she prevailed in a four-person playoff against golfers named Kim, Kim, and Kim. The next four names on the scoreboard were Shin, Park, Park, and Lee.
The media like to call them the Seoul Sisters. On tour, they’re known as Se Ri’s kids.
They will all be happy to know that mom played pretty well Thursday in the first-ever round of the first-ever Marathon Classic.
Oh, it wasn’t the Se Ri of old, perhaps. That Se Ri would have spanked the back-to-back finishing par-5 holes in birdie-birdie fashion and walked off with a 67 or better. Often far better.
This time it was par-par for a 69, still 2-under and within a four-shot shouting distance of surprise leader Alison Walshe, who in fact did go birdie-birdie on those last two holes while compiling a rather magical 11 one-putt greens.
“An OK day,” Pak said of her round. “A little hot, maybe.”
A little hot? That’s like saying Se Ri is a little well known in Toledo.
It’s like saying she has had a little success at Highland Meadows Golf Club.
It’s like saying … oh, that’s enough.
Pak won the Jamie Farr Classic five times. Only two other players in LPGA history have been victorious in a single event as many times.
She hears people say all the time that she owns this course. In fact, if she put all her Toledo winnings together she’d probably be able to buy it. A million bucks would at least be a decent down-payment.
“I would like to own it again,” she said, laughing.
A year after that lonely first appearance — her parents and her new agent pretty much making up the gallery that watched her miss the cut — Pak returned to Highland Meadows already the winner of both the LPGA Championship and U.S. Women’s Open in ’98. She fired a second-round 61, followed with a 63, and blew the Farr Classic field away.
Pak captured a six-way playoff, the biggest in LPGA history, at the following year’s Farr, had a 62 en route to winning in 2001, a 64 on her way to the ’03 championship, and a 63 to open her ’07 title bid.
Yeah, she owns the place.
That said, this is her first visit in three years. The tournament was on hiatus in 2011 and Pak was on hiatus a year ago after suffering a shoulder injury trying to break a fall after slipping on a stairway at an early-season tournament in Alabama.
“I didn’t fall, but I grabbed at the railing,” she said of how she partially tore her left labrum. “It was just unlucky. But I’m back and I’m healthy. It hasn’t been too much of a problem. I expected to maybe lose a little distance, but I feel better than ever.
“What I learned while I was off is how much I appreciate being able to be out here doing this. And this is the place I missed most of all. Toledo is the best. I’ve won a lot and the fans are great here. Even when the economy was a little bad this tournament always got great support. I love playing here.”
Yes, she feels fully capable of winning again at the Meadows, although her last win here was six years ago and the most recent of her 25 tour wins came in 2010.
“Definitely, of course,” Pak, now 35 years old, said. “I’m still playing well. I’ve had some good finishes. Hopefully I will win again. If I didn’t think that way I wouldn’t be playing. Oh, no, not me. But I can win. I still have the same goals and the same desire to win as I did my rookie year.”
So she will enter today’s second round of the Marathon Classic with the thought of going low and chasing a sixth Toledo title.
“Why not?” she asked.
Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: email@example.com or 419-724-6398.