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Golfer Gives Weary Korea Something to Cheer About

While most of the world was riveted to the World Cup soccer final Sunday, South Koreans turned en masse to women's golf.

It was the wee hours of the morning in the capital, Seoul, but nobody wanted to miss watching their newest national savior scoop up a third championship.

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The cool-headed young Pak Se-ri was rewriting history and giving hope to her homeland.

With South Korea's economy in shambles, there couldn't be a better time for a hero. "Birth of a Legend" trumpeted one headline when Ms. Pak won the McDonald's Ladies Pro Golfers Association (LPGA) Championship back in May.

On Sunday, she set a record for the lowest score in a 72-hole LPGA tournament, winning the Jamie Farr Kroger Classic in Sylvania, Ohio. The week before, she won the United States Women's Open.

Golf and greed

The joy greeting her string of victories is both an inspiration and an irony. Koreans have long associated golf with corruption and greed. Government officials with "mouse tail"-sized salaries could never afford to pay the fairway fees. But businessmen looking for favors were more than willing to pick up the bill.

The last president, Kim Young Sam, banned the playing of golf by public servants. Although the ban is lifted now, a heavy consumption tax makes it too expensive for most people. Bureaucrats still avoid the greens, knowing it will look bad if they play.

But thanks to Pak, the sport suddenly has been vindicated.

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Parents are signing up children for lessons. Newspapers point to Pak as an example of overcoming adversity - her father was reportedly a gangster who cleaned himself up and trained his daughter, taking her to Orlando, Fla., where she now lives.

Pak credits her rigorous training for her success. Up at 5:30 a.m., she exercises, meditates, and hits hundreds of practice shots for hours.

Seoul teenager Lee Jung Eun says she has started practicing harder since Pak's victories. "She never gives up," says Jung Eun, who wants to be a professional golfer too.

"While she's on the field, she doesn't let the opponents know what she's thinking. I like her calm attitude. I would easily give up and become frustrated," says Jung Eun, who says she thinks Pak is an inspiration to women, as well as Koreans.

Pak's high school is putting up a monument to her. Even President Clinton, who has been known to hit the links now and then, has said he'd like to play golf with her.

"We're just glad that our sister, our daughter ... won a world championship. Koreans are very patriotic," says Park Moo Jong, a columnist for The Korea Times.

Where winning is everything

Patriotic indeed. Few South Koreans understand the rules of golf, and fewer can afford to play. Winning is what counts - particularly in a sport dominated by Westerners and at a time when foreign investors are picking through the rubble of Korea's economy to buy its best companies at basement prices. In the World Cup, where the South Korean team was knocked out in the first round, observers remarked that Korea - a perennial underdog - seemed to enjoy the chance to show the world it could compete far more than the players actually enjoyed the game itself.

Even by international standards, Pak has achieved a lot. In her first year as a professional, she's become the youngest golfer to win three tournaments.

She's also made her sponsor happy. With boosted name recognition, Samsung is expecting millions in new revenues for its ASTRA brand of sports equipment and may launch a new brand called SERIPAK.

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