Pak, Chuasiriporn captivated global audience
Jenny Chuasiriporn's weekend-warrior sport of choice now is soccer. She hasn't played golf in about five years and has no idea when she might again. "Maybe one day when we have kids," she said of herself and husband Robert, "I'll take them out to the golf course."
She'll have quite a story for them, all true about the time when, as an amateur player from Duke, she faced a future Hall of Famer for the biggest prize in women's golf, with an electric atmosphere on the course and a large gallery periodically chanting her name.
South Korea's Se Ri Pak beat Chuasiriporn that day, July 6, 1998, in what turned out to be a 20-hole playoff for the U.S. Women's Open title at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis.
But this isn't a wistful, melancholy tale of fleeting glory. It's not like the movie "The Best of Times," in which Robin Williams' character, haunted by a missed touchdown pass in high school, obsesses about replaying the game.
Nope, this isn't sad at all. It's about happy endings for two exceptional women from different parts of the world, both accomplished in their respective careers today: professional golf and nursing. But 14 years ago, on a sunny Monday in Wisconsin, they were dueling 20-year-old athletes with a global audience.
For the U.S. television viewers in 1998, the Monday playoff was a chance to see an unscheduled, live sports event during a weekday, with the added bonus of an American to root for.
But in Korea, something even more profound happened: A national heroine emerged. Parents woke up their children -- especially their daughters -- during the night to watch it unfold.
Those of us fortunate enough to be in Kohler that Fourth of July week saw the rare sports event that "felt" historic, even while it was occurring. We didn't need retrospection to tell us something special was going on. Pak calls it, "The most important tournament in my life."
And when the U.S. Women's Open returns to Blackwolf Run this week, Pak will be trying to add to her total of 25 LPGA victories, five of them majors.
Meanwhile, Chuasiriporn will be viewing it on television from her home in Richmond, Va. Perhaps she'll be asked about it by one of her co-workers at VCU Health System, where most know her as Wanalee Betts (her given first name and married last name.)
She wonders how today's golfers will handle Blackwolf Run, which played at 6,412 yards in 1998 but will be at 6,954 this week.
"It sounds like it's going to be a huge challenge," Chuasiriporn said. "I'm really excited to watch it to see what kind of player prevails at the end -- a veteran or a young player. I'm sure some memories will come back."
Two survivors at Blackwolf
Pak and Chuasiriporn had never met before the playoff, but they had some things in common. Both were born in 1977 of Asian heritage. Chuasiriporn's parents are Thai immigrants who ran a restaurant in Baltimore that she and her brothers grew up working in.
Two months before the Women's Open, Pak had won the LPGA Championship but felt she still had to prove it wasn't a fluke. Chuasiriporn's game was peaking then, too. She had been the low amateur at the Women's Open in 1997, and then was an All-American and finished fifth in the NCAA tournament in '98.
She talked her parents into closing the restaurant for a week -- something they'd never done before -- and coming to Wisconsin for what was a family affair. Joey, her older brother by 11 months, was her caddie for the Women's Open. Little brother Jimmy, then 10, was his sister's biggest fan.
"I was hoping to make the cut," Chuasiriporn said. "I didn't want them to have nothing to do on the last two days."
She not only made it to the weekend, but heading into Sunday, Chuasiriporn was tied for fourth place behind the leader, Pak. By then, Blackwolf Run had sunk its fangs into everyone.
During the third round, Annika Sorenstam -- who, by 1998, had won the Women's Open twice -- made a quintuple-bogey on the way to a 79 and said morosely of the course, "You just scratch your head, and you don't know what to do."
Sorenstam would be LPGA Player of the Year in 1998, but was a non-factor in that Open, finishing tied for 41st. Karrie Webb, her emerging rival, tied for 31st. Amid the carnage, youngsters Pak and Chuasiriporn kept their heads.
"I had really simple swing thoughts then," Chuasiriporn said. "It was my best ball-striking year of my whole life. So I had a lot of confidence going into that tournament.
"It was probably just being 20 and really naïve to a lot of things. With my brother on my bag and the teamwork we had, it just clicked. Even though you felt like you were playing poorly on that course, if you just hung in there, everyone else seemed to falter and let the conditions get to them."
By late Sunday afternoon, Chuasiriporn went to the 18th hole knowing she was in line for a top-five finish, but didn't think she had much chance to win. The last she had seen of the leaderboard, Pak, playing in the final pairing, was two strokes ahead of her.
So when Chuasiriporn evaluated her putt of about 45 feet for birdie on the last green, she wasn't nervous.
"Joey told me to get a sense of the speed of the putt, and he'd read the line," Chuasiriporn said. "He factored in the double-breaker, and said, 'Just aim one foot left … give it a good run, why not?' That's exactly what I did. It tracked perfectly the whole way."
The crowd began to roar the closer the ball got, then erupted when it fell in. Jenny covered her mouth in shock as she looked at Joey, who ran over for a hug and a high-five. Jimmy clung to their mother, grinning, while their father jumped up and down.
Chuasiriporn was still unaware, though, that Pak had bogeyed 17, and thought the South Korean needed only a par on 18 to win. When Chuasiriporn realized they had finished 72 holes tied at 6-over 290, she knew her family would be at Blackwolf Run one more day.
"I guess I'll have to check back into my hotel," she joked to reporters.
A Monday to remember
Pak was disappointed after her round of 76 -- Chuasiriporn had shot a 72 -- but quickly composed herself for what she assumed would be an immediate resolution, unaware the Open then had the 18-hole playoff.
"Then I heard, 'We are going to Monday,'" Pak recalled recently. "I was like, 'Monday? For a couple of holes?'"
All through the tournament, Pak had engaged with the media in her charming, rambling English, most of which she had picked up since moving to Florida. She talked of missing her puppy, named "Happy." She seemed eager to learn about what was still a new country to her. Curious about the fireworks after Saturday's third round, she sought more details about this American celebration of Independence Day.
While Pak's syntax was often a bit scrambled, the earnestness with which she communicated had captivated reporters. Some comments, in fact, sounded almost Zen-like in their simple wisdom.
Asked Saturday what score it might take to win Sunday, she had said, "Golfers -- we don't know tomorrow. After we finish, we know. That is the perfect answer."
As it turned out, nobody won Sunday. Chuasiriporn didn't sleep particularly well that night, writing in her journal: "This is crazy, I'm playing for the U.S. Open championship."
It felt surreal to Pak, too, as she and Chuasiriporn warmed up on the driving range Monday morning.
"We'd been there with a full field, now it was just the two of us," Pak said. "I didn't see many fans out there. I thought, 'OK, everybody had to go to work, it shouldn't be too crowded."
But then they walked to the first hole, and it was packed, tee-to-green, with spectators. Many, many people had, in fact, skipped work.
"Probably the best gallery I've ever had," Pak said. "Oh, my God, that was unbelievable."
They weren't playing for prize money. As an amateur, Chuasiriporn couldn't accept it and didn't mind, saying she wouldn't have given up her senior season at Duke for anything anyway. The winner's check of $267,500 already belonged to Pak, but she wanted the trophy, too.
Chuasiriporn got off to a blazing start, chipping in on No. 1 as she birdied three of the first five holes. She gave it back with a triple-bogey on No. 6, but still made the turn with a 2-stroke lead. Then Pak birdied three of the first five on the back nine, while Chuasiriporn parred those holes.
When Pak bogeyed No. 15, they were tied again. Both players parred the next two holes, setting up a potential dramatic finish at the par-4 18th.
Chuasiriporn hit a good tee shot and then put her second on the fringe of the green. Pak, meanwhile, made one of her few mistakes off the tee, landing at the base of a steep slope alongside the water. Somehow, improbably, the ball stayed dry on a tiny tuft of grass, but Pak was still in a lot of trouble.
Should she take a drop and the stroke penalty, or stand in the water and try to hit an extremely difficult shot out? Either choice might cost her the championship.
Pak and her caddie debated for several minutes; looking back, she said, it seemed liked they talked for an hour. Some observers thought so, too.
Chuasiriporn said for years, people would tell her they were upset the United States Golf Association officials let Pak take so long to decide.
"But it didn't faze me at the time," Chuasiriporn said. "I didn't feel they did anything wrong."
Finally, Pak began to take off her socks and shoes. She was headed into the water.
Now at age 34, Pak describes what she was thinking then. You could say it's the sweet essence of youth, in any language or culture: Live for the moment, and don't be afraid to fail. Because even if you do, there will always be another day.
You can believe that when you're 20.
"I decided, 'I'm going for it, because I'm really happy I'm here.' And I'm trying to get my experience, to learn from that shot," Pak recalled. "As soon as I hit it, I think I closed my eyes. It's probably the best-ever contact in my career."
The ball crossed the fairway and went into the rough on the other side, but Pak then put her third shot within 15 feet of the hole. She was set up for an amazing par … but missed the putt.
Chuasiriporn needed a par putt of a similar length to become just the second amateur to win the Women's Open. But unlike the day before on No. 18, this time she knew exactly what was at stake. Her hands trembled, and she bogeyed, too.
The playoff went to sudden death, and they returned to the 10th hole. By this point, a famous spectator was walking inside the ropes behind the players: former President George Bush Sr.
He watched as both parred No. 10 and hit good shots into No. 11. But Chuasiriporn missed her birdie putt, and this time it was Pak's turn to putt for the title from about 20 feet. It dropped, and she hugged her father, while back in her homeland, thousands were celebrating with her. A star was born.
The 'Se Ri shift'
For the first 49 years of the Women's Open, U.S. players won 44 times. Then in 1995, Sweden's Sorenstam began a run in which non-Americans won six of the next seven.
The first Asian player to take the title was Pak in 1998; four other South Koreans have done it since.
Few athletes have influenced a change in the makeup of their sport as much as Pak. In '98, Pak was one of three South Koreans on the LPGA tour; currently, the tour lists 40 Koreans. The LPGA's television contract in that country is an important stream of revenue, plus South Korea has its own women's golf tour.
Other Asian women -- most notably Japan's Ayako Okamoto, who won 17 tour titles -- had preceded Pak on the LPGA tour. But Pak's immediate success -- in 1998, she won four LPGA titles and was the tour's rookie of the year -- and her outgoing personality resonated the most.
In this year's Women's Open field, there are competitors from South Korea, Japan, China, Taiwan and Thailand. The South Koreans, in particular, revere their countrywoman Pak for opening minds and welcoming those who followed her.
"I saw her on TV all the time when I grew up," said Seoul native Sun Young Yoo, who joined the ranks of Korean major winners in April at the Kraft Nabisco Championship. "She was very famous. She was on the news everywhere."
It's impossible to guess how many girls in South Korea were inspired by Pak to either first pick up golf clubs or start practicing much more with the ones they had.
"Maybe if I had won, there would be even more Thai people playing?" Chuasiriporn says now, chuckling again. "It is cool to know that our playoff may have gotten a bunch of young girls interested in golf who'd eventually become professionals. And it's great what Se Ri has done; it's certainly impacted golf in a huge way."
A different path
The lesson Pak says she learned from the playoff, especially from the water save on 18, was to keep grinding until the very end of a round because you never know what can happen. But Chuasiriporn would discover that to keep grinding in golf is not always the right answer for everyone.
She went back to Duke, was ACC Player of the Year for the third time, and the Blue Devils won the 1999 NCAA team title. But, inside, she just didn't feel as happy playing golf. The runner-up finish at the Women's Open had changed things.
"The pressure got to me my senior year -- the buildup to turning professional," she said. "It was a bit of a distraction. It was what people wanted to see, and what my parents wanted me to do. It was what was expected."
Now, she understands why she felt anxious back then about an impending life as a pro golfer. In college golf, she had tight-knit teammates. And away from the course, she had classes, schoolwork and friends.
"It was fun to share in the moments, the celebrations, with other people," Chuasiriporn said. "Out on the pro tour, it's just you, and it gets really competitive. You're always working on your game, trying to perfect this and that. It got … monotonous. In college, I think the balance in my life was what allowed me to play so well."
But she gave pro golf a try, playing in European and Futures tour events in 2000. She lined up some sponsors to help pay travel costs. After her first tournament of 2001, she felt she was letting them down because her whole heart wasn't in the game.
"So I sent every check back to everyone who'd given me money," she said.
Still, her parents wanted to keep supporting her golf. The pivotal moment came when they offered to cover her expenses for LPGA qualifying school.
"I knew they were working hard at the restaurant," she said. "This was more than $4,000, and I remember my dad handing me a check and me just staring at it. Then I said, 'I can't take your money, because I know I don't want to do this.' "
She tried coaching for a while as an assistant with the men's team at the University of Virginia. She enjoyed it, but that wasn't really for her, either. The next year, she played a couple more tournaments on the Asian tour, just to be sure. She was: Pro golf was definitely out. What did she really want to pursue?
Chuasiriporn kept talking to a friend who was a nurse, and then it became obvious.
"She let me shadow her for a couple of hours, and it was exactly what I wanted to do," she said. "It really fit my personality."
She laughs again, adding, "Blood and vomit never fazed me my whole life, so it was sort of my calling. Not just that, of course, but the science, the connection between your patients and their families. All the things you go through in helping them with critical situations. This career has been perfect for me."
In nursing, she found the same camaraderie and shared purpose she had loved so much about being on a golf team. And she realizes what she got from golf ended up making her a better nurse.
"Your focus is to stay in the moment, not let the emotions get to you, and that translates to what I do now," said Chuasiriporn, who is a cardiac surgery ICU nurse and also earned her nurse practitioner's degree in December. "I remember when I was playing my best golf, it was all about pre-shot routine, going through what you've been practicing your whole life. It's helpful to have some emotion, but not too much that it gets in the way of what you're doing."
Nursing is also how she became Wanalee. "Jenny" is a nickname her family had always used. At the hospital, her nametag reflected what was on her birth certificate. Plus, there were other women named Jenny in the same unit.
"So one of my co-workers said, 'Can we just call you Wanalee?' " Chuasiriporn said. "And I've grown to really like it."
All grown up
Pak is in the World Golf Hall of Fame and the LPGA Hall of Fame. She went 92 holes to win what remains her only Women's Open title, and it's unlikely that ever will be eclipsed. The tournament no longer has an 18-hole playoff; now it's a three-hole aggregate-score playoff, then sudden death, if necessary.
Pak has relished being the mentor to so many Korean players who have followed in her footsteps but tells them to not always think about golf.
"As much as I could say, 'I'm really proud to see you guys play so well, make sure you enjoy something in your life,'" Pak said. "Golf is a job, but you have to enjoy it. Bad week, move on. Good week, happy. But still move on, right?"
Last year, Chuasiriporn was inducted into the Duke athletics Hall of Fame.
"I get an itch to go out to the driving range every so often, usually around Masters time," Chuasiriporn said. "I didn't do that the last few years, though. It is hard to go back. You expect to play like you did before. But you can't."
There is no regret in her voice, though, because there's none in her life. Truth is, most people never even have that one day of almost reaching the pinnacle of something. The '98 Women's Open, her college golf experiences, the fun she has playing rec-league soccer now, and a nursing career where she gets to help people every day have been more than enough.
"Of course, I wish I'd won the Open," Chuasiriporn said. "But at the same time, if I had won, my life would have been pure craziness. I probably wouldn't have come full circle as quickly with switching careers and realizing pro golf just wasn't for me. It may have taken me much longer.
"I'm glad I had that experience and I played so well in that Open. But I'm super happy with where I am now and what I'm doing. And Se Ri has had a great LPGA career. It all worked out."