INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA – Pak Se-ri ended her Hall of Fame career Thursday in front of her adoring home fans in the LPGA KEB HanaBank Championship.
In tears on the final green at the end of the sunny afternoon at Sky 72, Pak cried nearly throughout a retirement ceremony on the 18th hole. The Little Angels children’s choir sang, players wore “SE RI” hats and farewell messages were played in a video montage.
It mattered little to the fans and players — many drawn to golf by Pak — that she shot an 8-over 80 and was tied for last in the 78-player field before withdrawing as planned.
Hampered by left shoulder problems, the 39-year-old Pak said in Phoenix in March that this season would be her last and she stepped away after the first round of the tour’s lone South Korean event.
“It wasn’t a sudden decision to retire, but I think it will take time for me to absorb the fact that I will no longer be competing,” Pak said. “Today I was really happy and grateful to see so many fans out there. It really moved me. I really wanted to show them my appreciation. I couldn’t figure out how during the competition, but I was very moved by the open retirement ceremony. I was very, very extremely happy”
Pak won 25 LPGA Tour titles — the last in 2010 — and five majors, two of them during a rookie season in 1998 that gave women’s golf its biggest boost since Nancy Lopez. The youngest player to be inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame when she was enshrined in 2007 at age 30, Pak won 14 times on the Korean LPGA and captained South Korea’s Olympic team — with Inbee Park winning the gold medal — in Rio.
At the top of the leaderboard, Alison Lee shot a 65 to take a three-stroke lead. The 21-year-old American birdied the final two holes and four of the last six on the Jack Nicklaus-designed Ocean Course.
Kim In-kyung, the winner two weeks ago in China, was second along with fellow South Korean player Cho Jeong-min, Sweden’s Anna Nordqvist, American Lizette Salas and France’s Karine Icher.
Pak last played on the tour in July, also shooting an 80 in July to miss the cut in the U.S. Women’s Open.
Playing alongside defending champion Lexi Thompson and Chinese star Feng Shanshan in the final group, Pak bogeyed the first hole and four of the next six. She bogeyed the first five holes on the back nine, birdied the par-4 15th and closed with three straight pars.
“When I reached the 18th, I was on the tee box, and I felt like I couldn’t make the shot,” Pak said. “I think I cried all throughout the 18th hole. Actually there was flood of emotions that I really didn’t expect to feel. I didn’t expect myself to feel this way.
“From the fairway of the 18th hole and the green I could see the gallery and the fans and there was just a lot of love and support. I think it was one of the best moments. I’ve had a lot of the victories in my career, and I have to say it was one of the best, happiest moments of my career.”
She managed to hit a good drive and a layup on the par-5 18th, then left her wedge 15 feet short. She watched Feng’s putt stay to the right, and had a better line, but still missed on the right edge. Thompson then missed — also to the right — from 3 feet, setting off a flurry of camera clicks as the attention turned back to Pak — 18 years after she sparked the rise in South Korean and Asian women’s golf.
“Pak-mania” ruled in the summer of ’98, especially after she won the U.S. Women’s Open in a 20-hole playoff against amateur Jenny Chuasiriporn. When Pak returned to South Korea that fall, she had to be hospitalized for exhaustion. Television cameras even came into her hospital room to give the latest news.
Pak was a catalyst for more young players to believe they could compete on the strongest circuit in women’s golf. Today, six of the top 10 players in the world and 22 of the top 45 are South Korean.
Lee matched her best round of the season marred by a torn labrum in her left shoulder.
“I actually injured my shoulder back in February and I didn’t know what was wrong,” Lee said. “My swing was changing and all that and I definitely wasn’t performing the same way I used to. It hurt a lot, a huge portion of my mental game. I was struggling a lot on the golf course not only because of my injury, but because I was scared. I was scared of the ball. I didn’t know where it was going to go.”
After a birdie try on 16 horseshoed out, the UCLA student made a 12-footer on the par-3 17th and got up-and-down for birdie on 18 after nearly reaching the green in two.
“I think I only missed one or two putts inside 15 feet,” Lee said.
Evian winner Chun In-gee and U.S. Women’s Open champion Brittany Lang shot 69. Thompson was at 70 with Brooke Henderson, the Canadian teen playing the third of six straight weeks in Asia.
South Korea’s Jang Ha-na, the winner last week in Taiwan for her third victory of the year, had a 71. Feng and Ariya Jutanugarn, a five-time winner this year, shot 73. Top-ranked Lydia Ko was tied for 63rd at 75.