The last time the U.S. Women’s Open was played on the Blackwolf Run courses in Kohler the participants felt about as welcome as General Custer’s troops at Little Big Horn. The compilation of Pete Dye’s River and Meadow Valley courses took no prisoners even though some of the best in the game were very willing to surrender. The score that got to the Monday playoff in 1998 was 6 over par-that remains the highest 72 hole score of a winner in a women’s major in 36 years.
If you have ever played the River Course at Blackwolf Run you can understand how stern a test this was for these women. Windy conditions, deep rough, and humongous undulating greens made for high anxiety for the best players in the world. Among the 40 rounds of those finishing in the top ten that year only two rounds were shot in the sixties. On that final day only one person in the top ten shot par and there were two 76’s and a 78 in that group-one of those 76’s was by Se Ri Pak who made it to the playoff.
Randall Mell relates an anecdote in a Golf Channel article that characterizes the difficulty the course presented that week. Meg Mallon made a quintuple bogey nine on the opening hole the first day and never recovered. She said that Pete Dye came up to her at a dinner function there and said, “Meg, if I would have taken a 9 on the first hole I would have shot myself.” Her response was “Actually Pete, I was thinking about shooting you!”
The two unlikely protagonists who survived the brutal test to get to a playoff were a pair of 20-year-olds. Se Ri Pak was a rising star, a rookie professional who had won the LPGA Championship in May two months earlier. Jenny Chuasiriporn was an amateur and a junior at Duke, a pretty unheralded entity going into the Open. Only one amateur in history had ever won this championship. Who can forget the look on her face when she made that 40 foot double breaker on the 72nd hole to force the 18 hole playoff.
Jenny took the lead early making birdie on 3 of the first 5 holes. But reality roosted on the sixth and she made a triple bogey. It was nip and tuck the rest of the way and tied going into the very challenging finishing hole from the River Course. Se Ri blinked hitting a snorgle hook into the hazard adjacent to the fairway on 18. What followed was one of the most riveting and ethereal moments in U.S. Women’s Open history.
Se Ri walked up and saw that her ball was in the hazard but it was not in the water-it was perched precariously on the side bank and was theoretically playable. With Jenny on the fringe in regulation Si Re decided, against the advice of her caddie, that her only chance was to go shin deep in the water and try to extricate her ball from the hazard without a penalty. The thousands present held their collective breath knowing just about anything could happen on this swing. She managed to get the blade of her wedge on the ball and advance it clear of the hazard short of the green.
It turned out this shot helped her salvage the tying bogey on the hole and sent them back to the 10th tee for sudden death to decide the championship. It took two more holes before Se Ri made about a 15 footer for birdie to finally end the Cinderella story of an amateur winning the U.S. Open. In many ways that shot, the drama that it entailed, and the riveting playoff that ensued put the U.S. Women’s Open back on the radar screen of golf fans all over the world.
This victory by Pak opened the floodgates of possibilities for Korean born women to make it on the LPGA Tour. Se Ri went on to a Hall of Fame career winning 25 LPGA events including 5 majors and this win stoked the imagination of a generation of young Korean women who have followed her to success on the women’s tour. In this year’s return to Blackwolf Run the U.S. Open will have over 25 Korean women in the competition. Korean women have won three of the last four U.S. Opens and currently 10 of the top 25 ranked players in the world are from Korea.
The experience jettisoned Jenny Chuasiriporn into the limelight of women’s golf but she never reached the same level of success in her professional golf career. She quickly concluded she needed to walk away from golf and decided to pursue a career in an equally daunting profession. She went back to grad school and got her master’s degree as a nurse practitioner. Jenny now works in a cardiac intensive care unit helping people with post-surgery problems, chronic disease, and end-of-life care. For her that magical weekend 14 years ago is just a pleasant, distant memory. She is content that she has found her calling and through her profession of choice can really “make a difference in people’s lives”.
The two 20-year-olds who created the drama that unfolded that weekend went decidedly different ways but together the perseverance they displayed altered forever the perceptions and aspirations of the women who will compete this week for the U.S. Open title at Blackwolf Run.