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LPGA's Se Ri Pak Retires But Her Impact On Golf Has Never Been Stronger

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's hear evidence that an athlete changed the face of her sport. Golfer Se Ri Pak retired last week. Injuries ended her Hall-of-Fame career. Yet, in a way, Pak's hold on golf has never been stronger.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Her rise in the late 1990s inspired a generation of young Asian girls. Now that generation is dominating the LPGA tour.

INSKEEP: Trace those success stories back far enough, and they begin with a TV broadcast of Pak's breakthrough win at the 1998 U.S. Women's Open.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #1: A par putt for Se Ri Pak. A lot of players have read this to break left.

DANIEL COYLE: My name's Daniel Coyle. I'm the author of "The Talent Code," and I've spent the last decade looking at why people get really, really good at things.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #2: And the rookie pro Se Ri Pak - what a display of golf.

COYLE: This was a perfect example of what I call ignition - an example of a moment when girls - Korean girls, Korean-American girls - were staring.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

COYLE: They were staring at this 20-year-old winning this huge tournament, saying I want to be just like her, connecting their identity with hers. To look at someone that you want to be is at the core of the talent-development process.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TIFFANY JOH: I can say with 100 percent certainty that I would not be playing golf had I not switched on the TV that day. I'm Tiffany Joh. I'm 29 years old. This is my fifth year on the LPGA tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #3: She moves off the ball slightly with her head right there. Great extension.

JOH: I was probably about 12 years old. I hadn't really touched a golf club. My dad had played a little bit, and I think when they saw that this Korean girl was in contention, they thought it would be a really good opportunity for me to see someone that looked kind of like me on national television.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: And this ball drawing - this is a little dangerous.

JOH: I just remember Se Ri Pak hit this shot way left, and everyone thought that she just had no chance of winning from where she was.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: She's going to have to stand in the water, obviously, to play this shot.

JOH: Instead of taking a drop, she decided to kind of take the riskier play.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SE RI PAK: I have to take the shoes.

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: She's saying I might have to take the shoe.

JOH: Took off her shoes and took off her socks. And the main thing I remember is seeing her sock tan because her feet were so white, and she was so tanned. And - and I was pretty outdoorsy at the time myself, and I think my parents were always worried about me getting darker. But for the first time, I saw this girl that was super-tanned, and she was Asian, and she looked like me, and she was playing a sport.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED COMMENTATOR #4: Well, she's got it out all right. Will it get down?

JOH: It was pretty much the day after that I told my dad that I wanted to get some golf clubs and start playing. And he was all for it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOH: If you look at the average age of LPGA Korean golfers out on tour now, they're around 25 to 29, which means they were probably anywhere from 7 to 12 years old when Se Ri won the U.S. Open. And that's actually kind of the perfect age to start golf.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JOH: You look at the top 10 players in the world right now. Lydia Ko is the number-one golfer right now. Inbee Park Just won the gold medal at the Olympics - In Gee Chun, I. K. Kim, So Yeon Ryu. Even in my close-knit group of Korean-Americans on tour - Christina Kim, Michelle Wie, Jane Park - we're all Koreans that were born and raised in America but watched that same coverage of Se Ri winning the U.S. Open.

INSKEEP: Golfer Tiffany Joh with her appreciation of Se Ri Pak, who has retired. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.