In March, LPGA Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak announced that she would retire at the end of her season. This past week, she played her last event, ending her career in Incheon, South Korea, her home country.
Pak has been credited for inspiring a whole generation of female golfers, particularly in South Korea, who have become known as “Se Ri’s kids.” She is the equivalent of Arnold Palmer there, and her influence spanned across all of Asia, bringing in a wave of young players eager to make their mark in the world of golf.
Some even credit Pak for helping save the LPGA tour and stabilize its existence when it struggled to obtain sponsors.
“Without the Korean and Asian TV rights, this tour four or five years ago might not be here anymore. We were at a point where we had 23 events and I think half of those were in Asia. So the Asian market basically supported us there for a couple of years and allowed us to get to where we are now. Se Ri's a huge part of that,” LPGA player Stacy Lewis told ESPN this summer.
When I was younger, Se Ri Pak inspired me in ways that is hard to put in words. At first, I related to her, because she had strong legs, similar to mine. Twelve years my senior, it was the first time I saw a golfer who looked like me, so to speak.
She possessed a powerful swing and an even more powerful stride, while carrying herself with poise and purpose.
I never perfectly emulated those traits, but I tried. She doesn’t know it, but I would often “play” golf with her by playing two balls in a round. One ball would be Pak’s and the other mine: I always beat her by one shot because I did not want to beat her too badly.
She and I had one major difference though: she had an incredible work ethic, a work ethic that was forced upon her by her father. While her success can be attributed to being pushed to her limits in her training, it was that training that specifically derailed her happiness during her 19- year career.
Pak admitted during an interview when she announced her retirement that, “I took care of my golf. I didn’t take care of myself. My golf, it’s good. As a person, I don’t think I’m good, not good enough.”
This reflection is extremely telling of someone who had incredible success, with an accumulation of 39 international wins during her career. It also speaks to the pressure that top athletes face to continue to win, whether it’s pressure they put on themselves, pressure by family members, by fans or sponsors.
At some point many of us have felt a certain pressure to be something more, to achieve something great, even if it’s not something we actually want for ourselves.
"I don't think I've been a happy person ever. After winning [a tournament], that moment I'm holding the trophy, I'm so happy because that's just the way I want it. And then back at the hotel, I feel lonely,” she said.
In 1998, the New York Times ran a piece on Pak after becoming the youngest woman to win the Women’s U.S. Open at age 20. It highlighted the extreme measures her father used to make sure she would become the best.
“Away from the golf course, the father occasionally camped out in a tent with her in a cemetery, then left her alone in the dark to develop, he said, ‘her bravery.’”
It’s no surprise in the midst of all of Pak’s endless training that she never had to time to develop other passions or work on herself outside of golf.
She is an example of the inner turmoil many face: one who wants to find purpose beyond his or her career. It’s the struggle of wanting success, while also despising the work required to obtain it. It’s the dichotomy of trying to understand if personal success is attached to professional success.
Se Ri Pak serves as an inspiration to anyone who has struggled with these very questions, professional athlete or not. She reminds us to remain honest with ourselves and to put our focus not on whether we win, but if what we’re doing actually makes us happy.
Her personal hope now is to find fulfillment outside of the golf course by helping up-and-coming golfers learn that the sport is not the end-all-be-all, that there’s an entire world to explore and enjoy during their professional pursuits.
My hope for Pak is that this new chapter brings her the inner peace and happiness she never experienced during her playing days. But I also hope she can look back on everything she accomplished and feel proud of her success. And I’m not speaking of her wins. I’m referring to the lives she touched, young and old, the men and women that she inspired to play golf.
I fully believe though that in her new journey, she will touch so many more lives because she will be operating out of a place of happiness and honesty, garneringin a new wave of “Se Ri’s Kids,” and the world will be better for it.