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After a Fashion, It's Pak

Golf: Her first-round 68 gives her one-stroke lead at Tarzana, while attention is on LPGA marketing strategy.

April 06, 2002|PETER YOON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Poor Se Ri Pak.

One of the top three players on the LPGA Tour, coming off a career-high five victories last year and winner of three major championships in her career, Pak somehow keeps finding a way to be overshadowed.

Last year, when Pak won her third major at the British Open, it was Annika Sorenstam stealing the spotlight with an eight-victory season that included a tour single-round record 59 and a 10-stroke comeback victory.

Friday, when Pak shot four-under-par 68 and took the first-round lead at the Office Depot Championship Hosted by Amy Alcott at El Caballero Country Club in Tarzana, Pak took a back seat to a fashion show, and all the talk about sex appeal and a new marketing strategy for the tour.

But while tour players Cindy Rarick, Sally Dee and Heather Daly-Donofrio donned evening gowns and high heels for a promotional fashion show designed to show LPGA players in a more attractive light, Pak was busy fashioning a one-shot lead over little-known Tonya Gill and Wendy Doolan. Dawn Coe-Jones and Kristal Parker-Manzo are two behind Pak. Sorenstam, the defending champion, is joined by Laura Diaz, Lorie Kane, Kellie Kuehne, Michelle Estill and Karen Stupples three strokes back at 71.

Pak, who has played third fiddle to Sorenstam and Karrie Webb in what has evolved as the tour's big three, had seven birdies in a round spoiled only by a fifth-hole bogey and a splashdown in a lake near the par-five 17th hole that led to a double bogey. Afterward, she discussed her status among fans and the media.

"I think I'm pretty much at the same level as [Sorenstam and Webb], but I'm a little behind [with the media]," Pak said. "I think some day there will be newspapers and TV everywhere, but I have to get consistent like Annika."

In the new-look era of the LPGA Tour, a short skirt might help. LPGA Tour Commissioner Ty Votaw revealed a plan at the beginning of this year to improve the marketability of LPGA Tour players. The plan has five steps, but improving physical appearance has drawn much of the attention.

"We need more TV and media exposure and that's one way to do it," said Alcott, an LPGA Tour Hall of Fame member. "Playing good golf is not good enough out here. You have to roll over and do cartwheels and bite yourself to get attention."

A fashion show had to suffice Friday.

The show--which will be used in television advertising to promote the tour--was a prelude to the Fashion of the Fairway show that will take place from noon to 2 p.m. today. The idea is to give fans an aside to the golf tournament, much the way that fast-pitch radar guns are used at baseball games and pop-a-shot games are used at basketball arenas.

"It's a lot more fun than beating balls at the range after a round," said Rarick, who shot 75 Friday before getting decked out in her formal gown. It also happened to work. The show, held near a heavy foot-traffic area of the ninth green, was too much for many of the spectators to resist.

What they missed, other than Pak's impressive round on a course that yielded only 11 rounds under par, was a breakthrough round from Gill. Gill, 31, played the tour as a conditional member in 1994, traveling from tournament to tournament attempting on Mondays to qualify for events. She earned only $13,558 then quit professional golf and went into sports marketing.

"Being conditional, I don't think there is a harder job out there," Gill said. "It's such a grind."

She helped organize celebrity golf tournaments in her hometown of Nashville for three years before the itch to compete returned. She qualified for the futures tour last year, then finished 15th at Q-school to earn exempt status for this year.

"It's still a long way to go until Sunday afternoon," said Gill, who played bogey-free for only the third time as a professional. "I don't know if I've found the great secret to keeping my card out here, but I'm working real hard to keep my exempt status."

Sorenstam, the hottest player in golf with two wins, a second and a seventh already this year, is coming off a victory at the Kraft Nabisco Championship last week and came from 10 strokes behind in the final round to win this tournament last year.

Sorenstam's score could easily have been a lot lower had some of her putt on El Caballero's tricky greens dropped into the hole. She made a birdie putt on the first hole, but had little luck after that.

"After that, they didn't go in," Sorenstam said. "These greens are quite tough, but they're on the edges so hopefully they'll drop the next few days."

*

Michelle Wie, the youngest player to earn a spot in an LPGA Tour event through a Monday qualifier, received a sponsor's exemption Friday to play in the Asahi Ryokuken International at North Augusta, S.C., May 16-19.

The 12-year-old star from Honolulu qualified for the season-opening Takefuji Classic at Kailua-Lona Hawaii, where she was six over for two rounds and missed the cut.

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