From the Golf Journal Archives - Pro-Am

Jun 29, 2012

Korea’s Se Ri Pak continued on her fast track to stardom, winning a dramatic Women’s Open over a young but determined challenger.

By Rich Skyzinski

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1998 issue of Golf Journal.)

HOW RARE THAT ON this warm, muggy Wisconsin afternoon, golf returned to its roots. Not a single dime was at stake. Just two exceptional players pitted in the greatest confrontation of their competitive lives, grinding for the privilege of having their name inscribed on a silver trophy. Golf the way it was when clubs had names, not numbers. The shame of it all was that it lasted but 4½ hours.

Only two things were assured on this day: that history would be made regardless of the winner, and that Jenny Chuasiriporn, for at least a week, would be welcomed as the new sweetheart of American golf.

Se Ri Pak had already won one women’s professional major this year, and though she was a newcomer to American golf by way of Daejeon, Korea, and has been playing golf for only a fraction of her 20 years, it had been 60 years since anyone had secured a second major at such an early age. All the way back to Patty Berg, then 20.

That the alternative was another 20-year-old, and an amateur to boot, truly took golf back to another era. The odds of an amateur winning the U.S. Women’s Open, one assumed, were as long as some of the thigh-high wilderness that frames the Sheboygan River and from which Blackwolf Run Golf Course was carved.

Chuasiriporn didn’t have the credentials of a Nancy Lopez, who tied for second as an amateur in 1975, or even those of a Vicki Goetze-Ackerman or a Wendy Ward, the only amateurs to finish in the top five of an LPGA event this decade. She’d had her summer playing schedule all mapped out, of course – anything, she joked, to get out of waiting on tables or washing dishes at The Bangkok Place, the Thai restaurant in Timonium, Md., owned by her parents – but earning a place in an 18-hole playoff for the Women’s Open title was beyond anyone’s imagination, including hers. When Chuasiriporn’s parents made plans to fly to Wisconsin, they chose to stay all four days only because Chuasiriporn would be around through Monday, when she and her Curtis Cup teammates were scheduled to fly to Minnesota for a four-day practice session, and she wanted her family “to watch a good four rounds.”

It didn’t matter that it took 92 holes or that she came up short against Pak in the longest Women’s Open ever. What she gave her parents, Paul and Edy, her 10-year-old brother, Jimmy, her 21-year-old brother/caddie, Joey, and thousands of others amassed on a hillside beneath the Blackwolf Run clubhouse was nothing short of a miracle. Twenty years from now, ask anyone who was there what they remember about the ‘98 Women’s Open, Chuasiriporn’s putt at the 18th Sunday afternoon or Pak’s winning birdie putt at the 20th hole of the playoff. No contest.

It was golf’s version of Franco Harris plucking the football a sliver of an inch off the turf, Valparaiso going the length of the court in the final second. No one expects it to happen and it is such a stunning, spine-tingling turn of events that when it’s over, you replay it in your mind because you’re not sure what you’ve just witnessed.

Chuasiriporn and her brother stood in the dark shadows of Blackwolf Run’s 18th green Sunday afternoon, trying to figure out a 35-foot putt she believed had no significant meaning. She knew she’d trailed by two at the 18th tee, but news of Pak’s bogey at the par-3 17th hadn’t been posted on the leader board as she examined the putt from one side, then the other. Her caddie did the same.

“Finally,” she recalled, “I just told him, ‘Give me the spot.’ ”

As long as Chuasiriporn and her brother live, their relationship will be defined by that moment when time stood still. The fraction of a second when the ball fell over the edge of the hole, her wide, disbelieving eyes met his and they were swallowed by an explosion of noise that reverberated over the hillsides.

“I just told her the same thing over and over again,” said Joey. “Every time you’re on the green, give yourself a chance. Get it to the hole and give yourself a chance.”

“I really didn’t expect to make it,” Chuasiriporn confessed. “I thought it was for second place.”

After descending from cloud nine, Chuasiriporn the next day found herself in another enviable situation: 50 feet from immortality. In the playoff earlier that afternoon she had the most cherished title in women’s golf in her grasp – she led by four after five holes – and then let it all slip away as a disastrous triple-bogey at the par-3 sixth gave Pak renewed hope. “Four stroke behind her, but I didn’t give up because I have many hole left,” Pak said in her fledgling English afterward. “I play my game, keep thinking, just control my mind.”

Consecutive birdies by Pak at the 11th and 12th brought the playoff to a tie at one over par, which is the way things stood as the players went to the 18th tee.

After Chuasiriporn drove into the fairway, Pak’s tee shot bounded along the left side before it hopped into an eight-day-old hazard. The area to the left of the 18th fairway is normally covered by high rough, but the suggestion to fill it with water for the Women’s Open made for a much better finishing hole and, as it turned out, heart-palpitating drama. “First I get there, I saw my ball, then no chance to out,” Pak said. “I think I lose there. So I just want to try drop, but last day... last day, last hole, I don’t have chance. So I want to try something.”

After Chuasiriporn put her approach on the right fringe, near the crown of a ridge that ran down toward the hole, Pak debated the toughest decision of a brief golf career in America – jump-started with a victory at the LPGA Championship in May.

Now Pak saw no choice. If she were going to win the Women’s Open here she was going to do it in heroic fashion, and so when she took off her shoes and then her socks – the ball was a foot above the water but she’d have to stand in the water to hit it – the estimated 8,000 spectators lining the hole threw their support behind the all-or-nothing decision.

There was no question the move to play the ball instead of taking a drop was risky. All week long players hit into the gunch and suffered greatly because of it. At the third hole Saturday, Annika Sorenstam hit it into the tall grass on a hillside left of the third green, advanced the ball three inches on her first try, four inches on her second, and not at all on her third. “I could see the ball just fine,” she said with a scratch of her head, trying to explain the unexplainable, “and I thought I could get a club on it. I guess it was tougher than I thought.”

Pak wedged the ball across the fairway, from where she hit an 8-iron 18 feet short of the hole. Still, getting up and down from the fringe would have won it for Chuasiriporn, but her chip curved 12 feet right of the hole. After Pak two-putted for bogey, Chuasiriporn’s effort for the history books slid by on the right side. “My hands were shaking so bad,” she admitted. “It didn’t have a chance.”

It made no difference that, had the playoff been match play, Chuasiriporn would have won, 2 and 1, to join Catherine Lacoste of France as the only amateur champions of the Women’s Open. But, tied at 73, they played on.

Two holes later, Pak rolled in a 15-foot birdie at the par-4 11th to win and stay far ahead of the schedule she set for herself when she came to America and finished atop the standings at last fall’s LPGA Qualifying School. “Then I want to win major many years from now,” she said. “Actually, after I win McDonald’s, then more confidence in myself. That is why I still play better.

“First time I win the major, that time really surprised myself because it is more confidence in myself and in my golf. Now I win the U.S. Open. I am really champion U.S. Open. It is my trophy here.”

IF NOTHING ELSE, THE DRAMA of the playoff overshadowed the scores that brought Pak and Chuasiriporn to Day 5. The 72-hole total of 6-over-par 290 was the highest winning score in 15 years, and on the weekend, when there was only one sub-par round, it was especially brutal.

The contributing factors were many. Blackwolf Run was the longest par-71 course in Women’s Open history – it was an even 100 yards longer than Oakmont in 1992 – and as a result, players accustomed to hitting middle and short irons into greens were grabbing 2-irons and fairway woods.

Back-ups began at the fifth hole, a par 4 requiring a long approach to a green with water on three sides, and were compounded at the sixth, which featured a 138-foot-deep green surrounded by a hazard and knee-high weeds. Having become familiar with Blackwolf Run from the Andersen Consulting World Championship of Golf played there a few years back, Ernie Els predicted lots of four-putts and scores in the 80s. He proved to be quite the psychic.

Who could have imagined, for instance, the group of Meg Mallon, Jane Geddes and Lopez would be a collective 44 over par for 36 holes? It was enough to force a surrender, which they did with a wave of white towels as they approached their 36th green.

“It wasn’t very much fun,” Lopez said as she wiped away tears of disappointment. “I just wanted to hide and go away for a while.”

Their troubles began right from the opening bell Thursday morning when Mallon, the Women’s Open champion seven years ago, needed seven strokes just to reach the green at the par-4 first. “The other two would admit we didn’t hit the ball that well and we got in trouble,” said Mallon, whose score was not indicative of her overall play; she was 11 over par for two days but nine over on just two holes.

Geddes and Lopez had just one birdie between them. “It’s a whole different kind of disappointment from last year,” said Lopez, who without a single three-putt shot 18-over 160, her worst showing in 22 Women’s Opens. “It just comes down to ball-striking. You have to come out and hit the ball where you’ve planned and I wasn’t able to do that... After this,” she joked, “next week’s going to feel like a pitch-and-putt.”

Laura Davies had the right idea early. She hit 3-irons on many holes where others were forced to hit drivers, and an opening-round of 3-under 68 left her positively giddy. “This is nice where you can hear the girls struggling,” she said with a smile. “They’re whining about hitting woods; I think it’s fabulous. ... If I’m hitting 6-iron off a really good drive, I know there are people out there with timber.”

No one would beat Davies’ 68, not even Davies herself, who failed to get within six shots of that over any of the last three rounds but nevertheless tied for 11th. Even that, however, kept her on the leader board most of Sunday afternoon, when five players held or shared the lead.

Those with the best chances, eventual top-five finishers Liselotte Neumann, Pat Hurst and Chris Johnson, made six bogeys and two doubles over the final nine holes. “No momentum, no birdies,” Neumann lamented. “Obviously you’re thinking you're going to make one birdie, that something’s got to drop. But they stayed on the edges all day.”

“I doomed myself,” admitted Hurst following a double at the 12th and a bogey at 13. “Your emotions are high and low and it was definitely low then.”

Had the wind blown Sunday like it did Saturday, the chances of Mhairi McKay would have been greatly improved. The Scot who was a four-time All-America at Stanford proved her ability to cope with the conditions with a third-round 73 that was the low score of the day.

“It was a two-club wind,” she said. “But growing up in Scotland and my home course being Turnberry, I’m used to playing in the wind.”

Come Sunday, though, her first-hole bugaboos continued – she made three bogeys and a double there – as she fell off the pace with a 78.

All that gave hope to Danielle Ammaccapane, who could have sneaked through the back door before anyone had realized what had happened. With everyone in the last five groups backing up – those 10 players were a combined 56 over par Sunday – Ammaccapane had birdies at the eighth, ninth, 10th and 12th to get to seven over par, just two strokes off the lead. If she could have picked up one more stroke and posted a six-over total... hey, why not? She bogeyed 18, however, to finish two strokes out of the playoff.

“I bogeyed the last hole,” she said, “but you know what? Shooting even par on this golf course, especially on Sunday, I’m just thrilled. I thought that maybe if I shot a couple of under (par), maybe I could finish top three. I really didn’t think they’d come this far back to me.”

No one could have imagined a lot of what happened at Blackwolf Run, but they will remember it. Of that much you can be certain.

Korea’s Se Ri Pak continued on her fast track to stardom, winning a dramatic Women’s Open over a young but determined challenger. (USGA Museum)

Pak’s chances at the 18th hole of the playoff looked to be waterlogged, but she managed to make bogey from the hazard. Two holes later she left Chuasiriporn high and dry. (USGA Museum)

Chuasiriporn faced an uphill battle in her attempt to make major-championship history, yet she nearly pulled it off, thanks to a stunning birdie putt at the 72nd hole that even she found absolutely amazing. (USGA Museum)