PHOENIX – Se Ri Pak is retiring after the season, ending a Hall of Fame career that inspired a wave of South Korean players who followed her to the LPGA Tour.
The 38-year-old Pak broke the news Thursday after opening with a 3-under 69 in the JTBC Founders Cup.
"It's pretty hard to make a decision to be retiring," Pak said. "I'll miss all my friends."
Pak 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.
"Hopefully, I'm going back to my country and I (can help) young players that are trying to play the LPGA or international," Pak said. "A lot of players have such talent, and the young kids, they're trying to make their dream. So, I'm trying to make possible for them to follow their dreams. So that's my plans."
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."
Na Yeon 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."
Hampered by left shoulder problems, Pak won her last LPGA Tour title in 2010 in Mobile, Alabama. She also has 14 victories on the Korean LPGA.
"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."