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Published: Sunday, 7/6/2008

Pak drives for No. 6, history

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Se Ri Pak waves to the crowd at Highland Meadows as she approaches the 18th green where she finished off winning her fifth Jamie Farr Owens Classic. She has 24 LPGA career victories. Se Ri Pak waves to the crowd at Highland Meadows as she approaches the 18th green where she finished off winning her fifth Jamie Farr Owens Classic. She has 24 LPGA career victories.
JEREMY WADSWORTH Enlarge

Se Ri Pak has just about seen it all while playing in the last 11 Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classics, and winning five of them.

She has triumphed by record scores and in record-setting playoffs. She has experienced the incredible heat and humidity of Julys in northwest Ohio. She has seen skies turn dark purple, lightning cracking way too close for comfort, winds whipping, and creeks overflowing.

Conversely, she has been here on those crisp, almost cold mornings when you wonder who turned off the heat.

But Pak has never seen smudge pots.

That s the first thing that came to Mickey Wright s mind when asked about the Sea Island Open, an LPGA Tour stop back in the late 1950s and early 60s, back when Wright owned the LPGA and no less than Ben Hogan said her swing was the best he d ever seen.

Wright, Pak, and Annika Sorenstam are the only LPGA players to have won the same tournament five times. Sorenstam has done it twice, but both carry small asterisks. She won the Samsung World Championship on four different golf courses. And her five Mizuno Classic titles came on two different Japanese courses.

Pak, meanwhile, has been dominant at Highland Meadows Golf Club, where she has four non-winning, top-10 finishes to go along with her five titles. Her career earnings just at Highland Meadows in Sylvania amount to $995,073.

Wright did all of her damage on the original Plantation and Seaside nines on Sea Island, a barrier island about five miles long and two miles wide just off the Georgia coast, east of better-known St. Simon s Island.

(The LPGA media guide lists Wright s Sea Island wins as having come at both Sea Island Golf Club and The Cloister Golf Club. In fact, they were one in the same. The Cloister was, and is, the name of the famous Spanish-style resort hotel on the island and the golf club s name apparently was changed for a short time to reflect that association.)

Regardless of the course name, smudge pots those high-necked, oil-burning, smoke-belching heating devices still used by citrus growers to fend off killer frosts are among her most vivid memories.

It was a very long golf course and the weather was usually horrible, Wright, 73, recalled of Sea Island. The tournament was always in January and the wind blew [at] about 30 miles per hour off those marshes. I remember them having smudge pots going. It was awful.

But I m cuckoo, I guess. I always loved those conditions. I hit the ball long and low, so I always thought I had the advantage.

Apparently so. When Wright won her fifth Sea Island title in 1963, the final year of the event s existence, she did so by 10 strokes over runner-up Ruth Jessen.

It was one of her 13 victories, representing 40.6 per cent of the LPGA s 32 events in 63. That win total is a single-season tour record and so is this 27 top-10 finishes in 28 starts. She was 28 years old and reached the 50-victory mark for her career during that year.

Even Tiger Woods would be impressed. He didn t score his 50th PGA Tour win until the age of 30.

Here s something else that might impress Woods. In 1962, almost four decades before he won the so-called Tiger Slam, Wright became the only woman in history to hold all four major titles at the same time. She won the final two majors (U.S. Open, LPGA Championship) in 1961 and the first two (Titleholders, Western Open) of 62.

Was it as big a deal as when Woods won the final three majors of 2000 and capped it off with the Masters victory in 01?

Nothing about us was a big story back then, Wright said, laughing. But it really meant a lot to me. Nothing was bigger than the majors.

You know, the players of my era didn t think in terms of records because we were making them.

So, you ask what it meant to me to win the same tournament five times. Truthfully, it didn t really occur to me as being anything special. On a list of accomplishments, winning five times at Sea Island didn t even place. But the majors always placed.

Wright may have a greater appreciation for the feat now, though, because she s pulling for Pak to shatter the record.

I think Se Ri winning up there for the sixth time would be fantastic, Wright said. I know if she s like me, in that situation, she just can t wait to get back to that golf course. You don t think about records or anything. You just can t wait.

Woods and Wright would likely both be impressed by what Pak has accomplished at Highland Meadows, where her last nine rounds have been in the 60s. In fact, 28 of her 42 total rounds in Farr Classic play have ended with a score in the 60s.

I play really well here, Pak said during a mid-May visit to Highland Meadows. Why? It just fits my game so perfectly. I don t think I play differently than [at] any other golf course, but it seems like I make an awful lot of putts here and go low.

It s always exciting to come back. I ve never missed this event. There have been scheduling problems now and then, but I work them out because I just can t skip the Jamie Farr. This is my course. This is the one that makes me comfortable and calm.

It has been that way ever since Pak first won the Farr as an LPGA Tour rookie in 1998 and set a tour record for lowest 72-hole raw score (261) that has since been bettered. A year later, Pak won on the first hole of sudden death against the largest playoff field in LPGA history. She was one of six golfers to be tied at the end of regulation play.

Pak added Farr wins in 2001, 03 and 07, when she out-dueled young Morgan Pressel in the final round and ended up with a three-shot victory.

Like Wright and Sorenstam, who has announced this will be her final year on the LPGA Tour, Pak is a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame with 24 career victories, including five major championships. Pak, 30, hinted during her Farr media day appearance in Toledo that she too may retire from competitive golf within the next several years.

Wright stopped playing competitively in 1969 at age 34, shortly after winning her 81st career title, for a variety of reasons that included foot and wrist ailments.

Betsy Rawls, another member of the LPGA Hall of Fame and a contemporary of Wright, once suggested in a Golf Digest article that Wright was consumed by the need to win, by the need to be the best in the world, and that it was that focus that eventually drove her into an early retirement.

I couldn t argue with that, Wright said. But there was more to the pressure than that. What happened is, sponsors would threaten to cancel tournaments if I didn t play. Now, that s a lot of pressure. The girls today, they might play two or three tournaments in a row and say they re so-o-o tired, and need to take a break. We played 15 or 20 weeks in a row. That was just part of it.

The other form of pressure to me came from having to be in contention all the time. I d finish second and go in and face the writers and they d ask, What happened? What s wrong with your game? It was probably like what Woods faces now. Well, maybe nothing was wrong. Somebody just beat me.

That stretch of four years [1961-64] with 44 wins, that burned me out, right down to the nub.

After unofficially retiring in 1969, Wright made rare appearances through the years and won her last title at the 73 Colgate Dinah Shore before it became one of the LPGA s major championships. She lost to 22-year-old Nancy Lopez in a sudden-death playoff at the 79 Coca-Cola Classic.

Wright played in several senior events during the 1990s, the last in 1995 when she birdied the final hole she ever played to finish third in the Sprint Senior Challenge.

It was the perfect ending for the lady with the perfect swing. Wright s golf these days is limited to crack-of-dawn practice sessions on her back porch, hitting balls off a mat onto the course behind her home in Port St. Lucie, Fla.

Pak, meanwhile, will be taking her swings this week at Highland Meadows, trying to erase the legend s name from one page of the LPGA record book.

So many players, so many years, and only three have done it, Pak said, referring to five wins in the same event. It s not easy to make something like that happen. But I have a chance. There s a lot of pressure to win five times, so why not six? This is the place I can make some history.

Contact Blade sports columnistDave Hackenberg at:dhack@theblade.comor 419-724-6398



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