Bob Holliday

Power and style part of growth in women's golf

Posted May 4, 2014

— For me, the dynamics in women’s golf began to change on a July afternoon in 1998. A young Korean professional, Se Ri Pak, found herself locked in battle with a fine American amateur, Jennie Chuasiriporin of Duke.

Chuasiriporin forced a playoff when she holed an improbable, twisting 45-foot birdie putt. As the ball broke first to the left, then back to the right, the Blue Devil star covered her mouth in amazement as her putt kept rolling toward the hole.

“Jenny, Jenny, Jenny!” NBC’s Dan Hicks exclaimed.

Soon Hicks told viewers the players would be returning for another 18 holes at Blackwolf Run to settle the winner.

July 6, 1998 was a quiet day on the Duke Golf Course. But inside the clubhouse, some three dozen men gathered around a television set to watch history made in Kohler, Wisc.

Chuasiriporin took a lead in the playoff, and appeared headed to victory when Pak hooked her tee shot on the 18th hole. The ball came to rest just a foot or so above a water hazard. As a right handed player, Pak had no stance.

Chuasiriporin waited patiently as Pak paced back and forth toward the green and reviewed her options.

“I think Jenny’s got this now,” someone said back at the Duke clubhouse.

Then Se Ri Pak decided to take off her shoes and socks as a worldwide audience sat glued to their TV sets, Pak went wading in the water at Blackwolf Run. Instead of accepting a penalty and probable defeat, Pak blasted a shot off the bank that extended the playoff. This would be the first sudden death playoff in the history of the U.S. Women’s Open.

Finally, on the second hole of sudden death, the 92nd hole of the ’98 Women’s Open, Pak made a birdie to win the championship.

The golfers in the Duke clubhouse, who had seen Chuasiriporin play five days of unforgettable golf, saluted this Blue Devil hero. While in South Korea, young girls who had watched Pak become the first Asian to win America’s national women’s championship (and legend has it there were thousands of them watching), began to take up the game.

Pak’s next foray toward the front in U.S. Women’s Open competition came at Pine Needles in 2001. Pak couldn’t catch Australian star Karrie Webb, but her second place showing reinforced the veritable explosion of interest in women’s golf among Koreans.

Soon players like Grace Park, Birdie Kim, Inbee Park, Eun-Hee Ji, So Yeon Ru, and Na Yeon Choi began to dominate play on the LPGA tour -- winning more than 100 tournaments.

Korean born players have now captured five out of the last six U.S. Women’s Open Championships. To a player, they trace their passion for the game to Se Ri Pak winning at Blackwolf Run.

We could include in this group, the game’s newest star. Lydia Ko was born in Korea, but her parents moved to New Zealand when she was a small child. The bespectacled Ko wears the look of a serious golfer. She became a two-time winner of the Canadian Open before she even turned pro. Last week, Ko, who can pitch, chip, and putt with the best, used her deft short game to win the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic.

Keep in mind, Lydia Ko is just 17.

But back to Pak and Chuasiriporin. While the Duke star never won an LPGA event, her play at Blackwolf Run seemed to send a message to American golfers:  You don’t have to be a veteran player, 30-something or 40-something to compete for the biggest trophy in women’s golf.

In 2001, a young teenager named Morgan Pressel qualified for the field at Pine Needles. Pressel, the niece of tennis star Aaron Krickstein, was just 13 at the time.

Pressel so turned heads in the North Carolina sandhills that she found herself besieged with autograph requests -- including one from the proprietress of Pine Needles, the great Peggy Kirk Bell.

Six years later, Pressel’s age record was shattered. A tall 12-year-old from Florida named Lexi Thompson qualified for the Women’s Open.

I remember seeing a young Thompson with her mother in the parking lot at Pine Needles after the first round -- just a stone’s throw from our WRAL-TV satellite truck.

Pressel, of course, would upon maturity, become one of the top 20 players on the LPGA tour. Thompson appears destined for even greater stardom. Now 19, Thompson has grown to a full 6-feet. Her average drive is 275 yards. For Thompson to top 300 yards off the tee is nothing unusual.

Thompson, the teenager ,captured the LPGA’s first major of the year, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, winning a great duel of long ball with the other rising star in American women’s golf, Michelle Wie.

The Hawaiian born Wie also has experienced the great expectations thrust by the media upon the young and talented. After becoming the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Public Linx Championships -- at age 10 -- the youngster with the long looping swing, who hit the ball such prodigious distances, found herself playing in PGA Tour events at the age of 13.

Playing with the world’s top male pros certainly generated publicity for Wie, but probably didn’t help her confidence, as she missed the cut in 12 of 13 events. Though she worked with teaching pro David Leadbetter to become a more consistent ball striker by shortening her swing, Wie continued to struggle even as she began playing women’s tournaments.

By the advent of the 2007 Open at Pine Needles, Wie’s game was a mess. I vividly remember standing by the ropes along the fairway of the 10th tee, hearing her drive whistle over my head and then rattle around in the trees. She had suffered a wrist injury earlier in the year and was trying to play through it. One could sense later in her post-round interview, that the injury had altered her tempo, restricted her power, and siphoned away her confidence. Wie did speak enthusiastically that day about her plans to enter Stanford. And that experience in academia seems to have ended very well indeed.

Now a college graduate, Wie’s grasp of golf seems to have grown -- along with her succeeding in earning a degree. Time after time in the duel with Thompson at the Kraft Nabisco, Wie left the driver in her bag. You can do that when you hit a 3-wood 270 yards. Wie put seemingly every tee shot in the fairway in that first LPGA major. That Thompson won the tournament made famous by Dinah Shore is more a testament to great play by her, rather than a mistake by Wie. In fact, Wie leads the LPGA, not only in money won this season, but also in greens hit in regulation.

Never was Wie’s ball striking better than a couple of weeks ago, when she won the Lotte Championship. Wie’s victory, which came coincidentally on her home course in Hawaii, underscored just what a rock star she has become in her native state. Wie not only received warm applause everywhere she turned, but even hosted the post-tournament ping pong match and the after party rock concert.

Like Thompson, Wie can hit the ball a long way. Listed at 6-foot-1, Wie plays more like 6-foot-3, getting the ball up quickly and dramatically. Wie hit one drive in Hawaii of 310 yards. Her drives in tournament play have measured as long as 348 yards. Not so long ago she reached a 592 yard par five in two. And she’s still just 24.

So here’s the message for all who love golf: This year’s U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst will feature some great young players. American players. International players. These are players with a great sense of style.

Those who get tickets will notice this sense of style in the chic fashions the players wear on the course; and most importantly, in the raw power with which they play the game.

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