Se Ri Pak is sharp in return from injury
PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- In late April, it looked as if the LPGA Championship this week would be a no-go for Se Ri Pak. It was reported then that she had a tear in the labrum of her left shoulder after falling on stairs, and the rehab was expected to take a couple of months.
Pak was worried. This is the year the U.S. Women's Open returns to Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, site of her epic playoff victory in 1998 that truly changed her life and the makeup of the LPGA, as it inspired a generation of South Korean girls to take up golf.
Pak couldn't imagine not getting to play at that course again, as it is so monumental in her career. So, initially, her hope was to be healthy enough to return by the first week of July for the Open. But guess who showed up here at Locust Hill Country Club and is near the top of the leaderboard after the first round?
"Low expectations help a lot," joked Pak, who shot a 2-under 70 and is in a tie for fourth place behind Spain's Beatriz Recari, American Ryann O'Toole and Italy's Giulia Sergas at 3 under.
Pak, who has 25 victories on the LPGA tour, five of them majors, described the injury as a "dislocated shoulder." In fairness, English is her second language, and once Pak gets on a roll talking -- she is quite pleasantly chatty -- you just hang on for the ride.
Here's basically the way she explained things: After several consultations with doctors, Pak determined she probably didn't need surgery. She took a couple of weeks off, then gradually began to swing again. Since her shoulder mostly felt OK, she increased her practice. Two weeks ago, she was back hitting with a full swing.
Still, when she arrived for a practice round Monday, she said other players and caddies asked, "What are you doing here?"
The answer is that she really, really wanted to be here. Pak will turn 35 -- can that really be? -- in September. As her caddie, Mark Wuesching, said Thursday, "She wants to win now more than ever. She knows she's only got another couple of years left in her."
Pak had four birdies and two bogeys Thursday and afterward said her shoulder wasn't causing her much trouble.
"Actually, I feel 100 percent great," Pak said. "There is no problem in any of my shoulder; a little bit my elbow. Other than that, it didn't bother me to make the swing. Maybe [I'm hitting] a little shorter than a month ago. Little differences, but not too much."
The thick rough has gotten a lot of attention here. Past LPGA Championship winner Cristie Kerr, who is with Pak in a group of seven players tied at 70, said it was the kind of rough that "is just gobbling up the golf balls this year."
Meaning, it could be pretty scary to someone with shoulder issues. But Pak, who hit eight of 14 fairways, shrugged it off. She acknowledged she has plenty of experience at Locust Hill -- it was a regular tour stop for three decades before becoming host to this major in 2010 -- but said that won't necessarily be a benefit.
"I know this golf course pretty well," she said. "But that doesn't mean it makes it easier."
If anything, Pak wasn't joking when she said she wasn't expecting much, so her mind was clear coming into the round.
And it also may have helped that she played in the same group as fellow South Koreans Sun Young Yoo and So Yeon Ryu. Both of them are "Se Ri kids" -- players inspired by Pak's success in the late 1990s -- who have won majors. Yoo, 25, took the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, and Ryu, who will be 22 later this month, won the U.S. Women's Open last year.
"Playing with them makes for lots of excitement and enjoyment," Pak said. "When I see them, it takes me back 14 years ago."
Pak has been having quite a few of those flashbacks this year, especially because of the impending tournament at Blackwolf Run. In May 1998, she won her first title on the tour -- the LPGA Championship, which then was played in Delaware. She subsequently won the LPGA Championship twice more, once at that same DuPont Country Club course in Wilmington, Del., in 2002, and then at Bulle Rock in Havre de Grace, Md., in 2006.
Her last tour victory, though, was in May 2010 at the Bell Micro LPGA Classic. She hopes her shoulder holds up the rest of this tournament and for the summer, because she knows she's in the twilight years of her competitive career.
"I'm very glad to be back here again; I wasn't sure when I was going to come back," Pak said. "I never expected it was going to be a solid round today."