HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. -- Her eyes twinkled underneath the brim of her white hat, and she flashed that sweet, boxy Cheshire cat smile. Se Ri Pak talked about looking up into the galleries at the old-but-still-young age of 28 to see all the Korean faces where once she saw only white.
"There is a difference now," she said. "Before, it was only me. Now everyone comes to see Michelle Wie."
There is plenty of talk about Tiger Woods' impact on golf, and rightfully so. There is lots of talk about Michelle Wie's impact on golf, and rightfully so.
But it's hard to find an athlete who has had more influence on the sport than Se Ri Pak. The PGA Tour still does not have a great deal more African-Americans or Asians than it did when Tiger arrived on the scene. And Wie's impact, bringing the young and the daring to both men's and women's tours, is still years from showing up.
But Pak has single-handedly changed golf. Eight years ago, she brought her powerful game and maniacal work ethic to a country where she did not know the language or the culture. She was afraid to go into the locker room, worried that someone would ask her a question in English and she would not know how to answer.
Yet when she took her shoes and socks off to play a shot out of the water to help her win the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, an entire nation of Korean people fell in love. Millions of little girls (and their sports-crazed fathers) suddenly dreamed of being just like her.
"In 1998, there was one Korean on the tour," says Karrie Webb, an Australia native. "Now there are 32. That's because of her. She is the face of Korean golf. If they don't already know, they should know now how much she's done."
And so this week we saw the tiny but intense Mi Hyun Kim, with her jaw jutting and her gaze burning. We saw her Saturday on the 17th hole, pulling out a fairway wood for a short par-3 and launching it over a bunker and onto the green, then making her putt for birdie. She tied for third. We saw the porcelain-faced Shi Hyun Ahn, with the quietest and most peaceful swing in women's golf, matching Wie shot for shot for two days straight and finishing within a breath of a playoff. She finished tied for fifth. We saw Seon Hwa Lee, so focused on the fairways that a nuclear detonation couldn't cause her to dart her eyes. She won last week, and is running away with the Rookie of the Year race.
Half of this season's LPGA tournaments have been won by Koreans. They are 15 percent of the tour, but have won roughly one-third of this year's prize money. They have made a more perfect world in women's golf. And they have done so because of Se Ri. Name another athlete who has had as much impact.
"They have raised the level of competitiveness," says Siew-Ai Lim, from Kuala Lumpur. "The Koreans do a lot of work. They push everybody else. It's similar to how Tiger elevated the level of play."
There is a great lesson for Wie here. Pak's stunning comeback from oblivion to grab her fifth major Sunday brought chills and tears not just because she had succeeded, but because she had faltered. She spiraled both personally and professionally, unable to find a sliver of a reprieve from all the pressure to win, win, and win.
Pak basically dropped out of golf last year, forced by injury to keep her hands off the clubs for the first time since she was a little girl.
And for a time, Se Ri was forgotten, lost in the excellence of Annika Sorenstam and the awe of Wie. When the 16-year-old Korean-American became the first woman in 61 years to make a cut on an international men's tour last month just outside Seoul, many golf fans forgot that Pak made a cut on a domestic men's tour three years ago.
But no Koreans forgot. Pak is still worshipped in Seoul. ("I'm still the queen," she said with a big smile on Sunday.) Like Wie may one day be in America, Se Ri is the woman who changed what was possible. She is the woman who made a statement not only for golfers and athletes, but for people who never really considered all the possibilities for their lives. In Korea, Se Ri is not just a star, not just an icon.
She is a metaphor.
And now, after her comeback, Se Ri means not only challenging and inspiring and winning, but she suddenly means overcoming, withstanding, lasting. Pak jumped for joy for the first time ever on a golf course Sunday, but it was also a jump for relief -- an enormous weight lifted. Last night, members of Pak's family flew overnight from Korea to cheer her on today. Now Pak will spend a day or two with them, relaxing and eating and talking and doing all the things that golf once forbade.
So when Wie finally wins -- when, not if -- it will be sweeter because of the pressure of this Sunday, and the Sunday at Kraft Nabisco, and the Sunday last year at the U.S. Women's Open. She will have conquered that pressure, but maybe she'll also learn what Karrie Webb and Se Ri Pak have learned -- that pressure might be an enemy to the young and pioneering, but it is a blessing to those who know what it's like to wake up on a Sunday without it.
Michelle Wie does not want to be the next Annika, or the next Tiger. She wants to be the first Michelle. Commend her for that.
But she could do a lot worse than becoming the next Se Ri.
Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at email@example.com.