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Published: Thursday, 8/5/2004

Pak always feels at home at Highland Meadows

BY STEVE JUNGA
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Although her 2004 season has not quite matched up to her previous six full years on the tour, the native of Daejon, Korea seems to have reached a comfort zone within the LPGA circuit and in the United States.

And, outside of her Far Eastern roots and her adopted residence in Orlando, Fla., perhaps no place does Pak feel more at home than right here at Highland Meadows.

That is why - despite the obvious inconvenience of traveling across the Atlantic directly from the Women's British Open - the defending Farr champion was actually looking forward to coming to the Highland Meadows.

"It's not easy," Pak said of the extensive travel and time zone adjustment, "especially because the last couple weeks have been big weeks. That [British Open] was the last major for the season, and you have a lot of pressure with the big tournaments.

"This time of year some top players take some off weeks, especially coming back from Europe with the time difference. It's not because I'm defending [champion] that I came, but just to see my lovely fans here this week. I love this golf course. I'm not having a great season this year, but this week is going to be one of my weeks."

In her last six trips to Highland Meadows, Pak has basically owned the course. In addition to her four victories here - in 1998 (her rookie year), 1999, 2001 and last year - Pak placed third in 2000 just one shot behind winner Annika Sorenstam, and was 10th in 2002, five strokes behind champion Rachel Teske.

After not making the Farr cut as a 19-year-old who had yet to qualifiy for the LPGA Tour in 1997, only once in her subsequent 24 rounds at Highland Meadows has Pak ventured over par, that being a 1-over opening-round 72 in 2002.

"The traveling [from Europe] is not easy," Pak said. "Sometimes you just want to go home and rest. But this week I feel like I'm really in my hometown. As soon as I get here, for some reason, I feel so much more relaxed. I'm pretty much ready to go."

Entering this week, Pak stands 10th on the 2004 LPGA earnings list at $559,632 through 14 events. In 169 career tournaments between 1996 and last week's Women's British Open, Pak ranks sixth in career earnings among LPGA players at $7,896,322.

Her first-place finish in early May at the Michelob ULTRA Open in Virginia was her 22nd tour victory, but she has just three other top 10 finishes this year. On her current pace, with roughly 60 percent of the 2004 schedule already completed, 2004 may wind up being Pak's least successful year on tour in terms of performance.

"This year my game is not as good as what I was expecting," Pak said. "I have really worked hard on my game and I felt strong for 2004. But right now I've kind of lost my feel for the driver. That's caused me a lot of trouble the last couple weeks. But I'm getting there.

"The important thing is I'm trying to find more confidence from the tee. I'm not 100 percent yet, but it's close. Hopefully this week I have confidence with this golf course. It's always been great for me."

Her comfort level overall has also improved.

"It's a huge difference," Pak said. "I'd say I've changed 80 percent.

"One thing, I can speak [English] so much better, and I can understand people. The second thing, the food is not bothering me. And, now I'm used to traveling.

"The first couple years I had so much tension because I didn't have many friends out there and I didn't speak much English and I pretty much felt lonely. I had a lot of pressure on me all the time. Right now I'm more relaxed, I have more friends and I enjoy it."

Contact Steve Junga at:

sjunga@theblade.com

or 419-724-6461.



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