Ace of Clubs

The most sizzling golfer on the planet cannot crack her own crab legs. Se Ri Pak is about to dig into a heaping plate of Alaskan King Crab in a restaurant in Warren, Ohio, when her mother, Jeong Suk Kim, sits down beside her, slides the plate over and starts extracting flesh from shell—lest Pak damage the most prized set of hands this side of Tiger Woods’s. “You see?” sighs Pak. “I’m not allowed to do anything.”

Actually, she does one thing splendidly well—win golf tournaments. In a span of just 10 weeks, the South Korean-born Pak—who is all of 20 and a first-year player in the Ladies Professional Golf Association—has calmly won four tournaments, including two major titles, to cause the biggest ruckus in her sport since Nancy Lopez won nine events in 1978. On the golf course, Pak is followed by noisy galleries teeming with proud Koreans and gen Xers—Pak’s Pack, if you will. “Se Ri has captured the public’s imagination,” says LPGA commissioner Jim Ritts. “She seems to be one of those athletes who transcends her sport.”

Perhaps most intriguing is Pak’s blend of preternatural maturity and beguiling naïveté. On the course, “she’s got a real good head on her shoulders,” says Lopez, now 41, who has taken a motherly interest in Pak, an intense, fearless competitor. Away from golf, though, the shy and quiet Pak appears even younger than her years. She wears no makeup, has no boyfriend, hangs out mainly with her beagle Happy and charms fans with her limited English (“I have no nervous,” she said after her tense, sudden-death victory in the U.S. Open). “Most girls her age in Korea are wearing makeup and dating,” says her mother. “But Se Ri is still like a little kid.”

To hear Pak tell it, her atypical young adulthood is all part of a master plan. “Right now, golf is first and my life is second,” she explains through an interpreter. “If I really concentrate on golf for the next 10 years or so, then when I’m 30 I will live like a human being.” Like the athlete she is most often compared with—Tiger Woods—Pak’s talent was evident early on. The second of three daughters born in Taejon, South Korea, to Joon Chul, 47, a building contractor, and Jeong Suk Kim, 45, Pak was only 8 when she took a break from watching her dad hit balls and swung her very first club. “I was stunned,” says Joon Chul. “I thought, ‘She can make a living doing this.’ ”

A gifted sprinter and shot-putter, Pak decided at 14 to focus exclusively on golf. Her motivation, she says, was helping her parents, whose construction business had suffered a setback. “They were supporting me so I could play golf even though their business was failing,” says Pak. “I started practicing very hard, not really knowing why. I kept saying to myself, ‘Just wait and see, they’re going to get everything they deserve, if I can help it.’ ”

Her father became her coach and mentor—and a tough one at that. To help her conquer her fears, he once made her spend an evening alone in a cemetery. “And if she made mistakes, I would holler and break clubs,” says Joon Chul. “I was scary sometimes.” The payoff came when Pak, powerfully built at 5’6″ and 147 lbs., started winning tournaments in South Korea—30 amateur events in four years—before joining the U.S. tour in January. Her first win was at the LPGA Championship in May, followed six weeks later by a thrilling playoff victory at the U.S. Open. So far, Pak’s long drives and accurate iron shots have earned her $773,645 in prize money, on top of her 10-year, multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Samsung. In June, she met President Clinton at the White House, and for the first time in her life got to wear high heels.

Despite her single-minded focus, Pak realizes there is more to life than winning tournaments. “I haven’t had a normal life since I started playing golf,” says Pak, who lives alone in a three-bedroom apartment in Orlando. The pleasure of Happy’s company aside, Pak is often lonely. “I don’t really have a whole lot of friends,” she says. Her parents, who visit often but live in South Korea with Pak’s younger sister Ae Ri, 17, a high school junior, and an older sister Yoo Ri, 25, a makeup artist, appear keen on keeping Pak on top of her sport. “She needs to capture 30 or 40 titles and be the first Korean player in the Hall of Fame before we can rest,” says her mother.

At the rate Pak is winning now, their day of rest may not be that far off. In fact, one day Se Ri may even get to crack her own crab legs. She seems to want that. “To be the best at something, you have to give up other things,” she says. “But sometimes I wish I could just be like other 20-year-olds. Just have a normal life and lots of friends and do absolutely nothing for a change.”

Alex Tresniowski

Nora Choi Lee in Warren

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