KOHLER, Wis. -- It is more than an honor for Annie Park to be making her U.S. Women's Open debut this year, in this town. It is totally appropriate. In a way, this is where her golf career got started, even though Park didn't know it at the time.
In 1998, when Park was only three and had yet to pick up a club, Blackwolf Run was where Se Ri Pak won the Women's Open. The victory was televised back to her homeland, South Korea, and thoroughly changed women's golf. "It just kind of took off," said Juli Inkster, the American who is in her 33rd Open and has seen the revolution first-hand.
After Pak's win, golf became a way of life for Korean women, even Korean women who had moved to the U.S. That would include the mother of the 17-year-old MacArthur High School student who will be in the first group off the 10th tee at 8 a.m. Thursday.
"I think," Park said Wednesday after her final practice round for her first Open round, "I sort of started golf because of her."
It was that 1998 Open, right here, that inspired Ann Park, Annie's mother, to go to the Long Island driving range and to bring her daughter, who began hitting balls mostly out of boredom. This morning, the mom will caddie for her daughter in a continuing tribute to Pak, now 34, who also is in the field. "You see 40-something players from my country ," the five-time major champion said. "I guess I opened the door for them."
The U.S. Golf Association reports that only three Korean players were in the field 14 years ago, as opposed to 28 this year. But that doesn't take into account young Americans such as Park -- who wore stars-and-stripes shorts to mark July 4 -- and Kelly Shon, 20, of Port Washington, who can trace their golf roots to this spot.
"Even though I am technically an American, I do feel very influenced by the Korean heritage," said Shon, who wore a white cap, red shirt and blue skirt for her practice round. "Both my parents are Korean. I grew up in a household where we spoke Korean a lot. I still take a lot of interest in Korean players and I feel just as attached to them, although I don't know if that's the way to put it."
Korean players have won 13 majors, including the one that detonated the women's golf globalization. Shon, who also was introduced to the game by her mom, said, "To be honest, I started golf fairly late. I wasn't exposed to that explosion, but I heard a lot about it."
Because of that explosion, women's professional golf is a far more competitive world now. So it will be tougher to make a living in it, as Annie Park hopes to do. Still, she is hopeful. She appeared relaxed Wednesday as she practiced with LPGA Tour players Paige Mackenzie and Cheyenne Woods (Tiger's niece, whom Park defeated last year at the U.S. Public Links). "I hit the ball better today," Park said.
But Park's mental conditioning coach, Bill Nelson of Orlando, said, "All this is no accident. It's a plan from November, 2010. I asked her back then, 'What do you want to do?' and then, 'Why aren't you doing it now?' He added that Park has been particularly focused, and the results speak for themselves.
So far this week, she has been neither star-gazing nor star-struck. She has not even met Pak. "I was supposed to play with her," the teenager said, "but I think she got tired."