Defending Farr Classic champion Se Ri Pak, working the practice green at Highland Meadows yesterday, shot a 62 at the course last year.
This is a much different Se Ri Pak. Five years ago she came to Toledo as a total stranger, and did little to distinguish herself on the golf course.
Pak was unknown, unheralded and unnoticed when she played in the 1997 Jamie Farr Kroger Classic on a sponsor's exemption, but failed to make the cut.
She was 18 air hours from her South Korean homeland, playing in a foreign country and struggling to speak an unfamiliar language. She was quiet, reserved and battling culture shock. And then she had to play golf against the best players in the world.
The Se Ri Pak who stepped off the plane in Toledo earlier this week is not that person any longer. Her smile comes easily, her English is comfortable, and the cultural adjustment period has long since passed. This is now her town, her course, her tournament. After three Farr victories and one third-place finish in the past four years, Pak is now confident, self-assured and relaxed.
That's not good news for the rest of the LPGA.
“I feel like I have a lot of confidence now - confidence about golf, confidence about the course, confidence about my game,” Pak said. “I feel like I'm physically stronger and mentally stronger, and my game is getting stronger. I pretty much know where to put the ball on the fairway to make it easier for the next shot, and I know the greens. I know I will always have a great week here.”
Pak has good reason to feel a flock of birdies might be in the air. She shot 62 here at Highland Meadows last year, when she won a career-best five tournaments. Pak has won twice this year, and has 15 titles including four majors in her brief time on the LPGA Tour.
There is a sense of order as she goes about her business.
“The first two or three years [on the tour] it was still a little struggle to control things - there was always too much going on around me - do that, do this, answer that, decide about this - and at the same time I had to play the tournament,” Pak said. “I tried to play as well as I could, but my mind was just too busy.”
Pak turned over the phone calls, appearance requests and the mundane side of golf to her agent, and that left her to focus her already steely resolve on the game she started playing at age 14.
“I want to play well, and I know that to get better, I have to work myself harder than before,” Pak said. “I have to get stronger mentally, and stronger physically. What ever I'm doing to get better - it has to be harder every year.”
Pak has a clear goal of being the best player in the world. Right now she has mapped out a strategy to get her on the same level as the top-ranked player, Annika Sorenstam. Passing Sorenstam is the next logical step.
“First of all I am working out a lot to get physically stronger. I am working a lot on my swing speed and on my short game,” Pak said. “I'm doing everything all together, just like Annika is doing. I think she is in her ninth year, so she is out here four years more than me, but I feel I can get there. I am getting closer and closer. Two or three times I was right behind Annika, so hopefully next year my name will be up there.”
Pak said her desire is to be the player of the year and have the low scoring average on the tour. But she is aware that the game can sometimes put a bump in the road to those lofty goals.
“People think that Tiger Woods will win every week, but he does not,” she said. “At the same time, he is the best player, but sometimes you miss the cut. With golf you never know. Golf is not guaranteed.”
Pak, 24, has only been at this for 10 years, but she finds herself on the steps to greatness. Three Farr titles in the past four years is not enough. She wants another one when the $1 million tournament begins tomorrow. She has clearly mastered the game, the course, the life on the tour, and the language is no longer a hazard.
“I am trying to get the perfect swing,” Pak said.
And she knows exactly what perfect means.