Se Ri Pak is leaving the LPGA Tour at the end of the season. She's hopes she can continue to inspire and mentor South Korean players for generations to come.
"It's pretty hard to make decision to be retiring, but it's a time for me to be," Pak said. "At the same time, I learned a lot and I'm trying to share all my skills and all these dreams. So that's where I plan to be the next step of my life. I just want to make dreams come true."
The 38-year-old Hall of Famer broke the news Thursday after an opening 3-under 69 in the JTBC Founders Cup, her first event in nine months. Hampered by left shoulder problems, she made only eight starts last year.
"It's been hard to see her hurt, to see her feeling some stress after rounds," fellow South Korean player Na Yeon Choi said. "You wish she could play like she did before."
Pak has won 25 LPGA Tour titles and five majors, two of them during a rookie season in 1998 that gave women's golf its biggest boost since Nancy Lopez. She was the youngest player to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame when she was enshrined in 2007 at age 30.
"Pak-mania" ruled in the summer of '98, especially after she won the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in a 20-hole playoff against amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. When she returned to South Korea that fall, she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. Television cameras even came into her hospital room to give the latest news.
Pak was not the first South Korean to play or win on the LPGA Tour, but her success served as a catalyst for more young players to believe they could compete on the strongest circuit in women's golf. Today, five of the top eight players in the world and half of the top 32 are South Korean.
"She inspired so many young players who are out here right now," said second-ranked Inbee Park, a seven-time major champion. "Seeing her play was a thrill for us. It's sad she's leaving, but I'm sure she's ready for her second life. Hopefully, she lives a happy life."
Choi was in awe of Pak when they first played together in a practice round.
"She's a legend in Korea. She's a founder in Korea. That's why we're here," Choi said. "People call us Se Ri's Kids. We grew up looking up to her — she was always on TV — and cheering for her. ... All the younger players really respect her. When she talks to us, we are honored."
Pak also has 14 victories on the Korean LPGA. She will captain South Korea's Olympic team in Rio, and plans to return to her homeland to live when the season is over.
"She can still play, but I don't think her body allows her to play a lot," said Brad Beecher, Park's caddie. "She started this roll of South Koreans coming through. If it wasn't for her, who knows where Korean golf would be now. She was the original, the one everyone watched, the one mothers and fathers followed back in Korea and said, 'OK, we want our little girl to do this as well.' It's kind of spiraled on over the years."
Pak won her last LPGA Tour title in 2010.
"It's really cool to see how much respect she gets from the other players — and not just the Koreans but everybody," American Gerina Piller said. "We've always been told to leave the tour better than you found it and she has definitely done that."
Pak was asked about her legacy.
"(I hope) remember Se Ri Pak was not only great player, hopefully, great person," Pak said.