- Florida State photo
's trajectory of improvement was one born of sacrifice.
The Scotch Plains, N.J. native left his family after his freshman year of high school to move to Orlando, Fla. and focus on golf while being home-schooled. It was a difficult decision and a tough transition, but Pak's single-minded focus and drive propelled him forward.
The accolades soon followed: A Rolex Junior First Team All-America selection, a scholarship and a place on the Florida State (FSU) golf team, ACC freshman-of-the-year honors, an FSU single-year scoring average record, First-Team All-America honors, a Walker Cup selection, and an appearance on just about every major college golf award watch list.
His seven collegiate tournament wins include the 2019 ACC Championship, and have put him just one win away from equaling the FSU record. His last was at the Seminole Intercollegiate in February, his second in that event, as he beat the field by five shots
His performance in major amateur tournaments has been no less impressive. Last summer, in preparation for what would be a successful Walker Cup defense for Team USA
, Pak recorded high finishes in the Porter Cup (T2), Sunnehanna Amateur (4th), and Players Amateur (T6). He also made the final 16 in both the U.S. and Western Amateur championships.
Pak's run has seen him rise to No. 2 in the Golfweek/AmateurGolf.com World Amateur Ranking
, and as the spring season progressed, he seemed perfectly poised to make a run to the logical conclusion of his trajectory -- an NCAA Championship, a major amateur win, a No. 1 ranking.
But now everything has stopped.
The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has reached pandemic proportions and disrupted practically every aspect of life, grinding many activities to a halt for the foreseeable future.
Related: List of amateur tournaments affected by the coronavirus outbreak
For Pak and college golfers everywhere, this meant a sudden and unexpected end to the season. The goals that players and teams were pursuing all year, not to mention the comfort of daily routines, were taken away from everyone. Uncertainty remains, as the transition is made to online schooling and no one can be sure when their next big tournament will be.
Pak will no doubt rely on the same focus and drive to weather this difficult transition, and be ready when the opportunity arises to compete again.
AmateurGolf.com's Shawn Allen spoke with John Pak about the growth of his game, his lost season, and how he is staying sharp during the lockdown. The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Interview with John Pak
What was it like to hear the news that your season was cancelled?
It was sort of crazy. We were playing golf together as a team, and we were supposed to leave for one of the best tournaments of the year at the Floridian, the Valspar Collegiate
, and we hear all the news. We hear that the tournament is going to get cancelled. Then we hear that this [other tournament] is getting cancelled, that [other tournament] is getting cancelled. It's pretty sad because a senior on our team, Jamie Li, was having a good season and...I just don't think we're done yet. It was really a shock to all of us.
With the season over, how are you able to practice? Can you utilize the FSU coaching or facilities?
I've just been doing my own thing. It's a little boring out here right now. I still have to work on my game to get better but I'm doing things on my own now.
Are you able to play in the new facility (the Seminole Legacy Club)?
The course is still open, we're still playing it. A few of my teammates are still here so maybe we'll have a match or something, but we're not allowed to have team practices so I'm kind of just doing my own thing.
You were trending in the right direction like just you were in 2019, and you just won your Seminole Intercollegiate. What went your way that led to your victory?
John Pak at the Seminole Intercollegiate (Gary Putnik/FSView photo)
I just felt very confident in my game and mentally I've been very strong this year and I think that's what has helped in my success so far. My game hasn't changed much since freshman year but my mentality definitely has.
How has your mentality changed?
Back in junior golf, I had never won an invitational, never won a big tournament. And I got to college and I won my first event in my freshman year. Then in my sophomore year I won four times. When you know you can win, it just frees the mind up. In the back of my mind, I always know I can win because I've done it, and in junior golf that wasn't the case, and that's what made me mentally tougher.
How have your coaches helped you with your mental game?
My coaches definitely help a lot because they know my game very well and they're very positive about my swing, my putting, and they give me a lot of confidence. Also, Dr. Bhrett McCabe, a mental coach, comes in to help us once a year. He loves that competitive drive I have, and he tells me to use it to my fullest advantage, and I think that's what I do.
When you are on the course, are you thinking about your swing or your putting? Or are you thinking about how to attack the course?
When I'm playing my best, I am not thinking about my swing. I'm thinking about where the ball is going to end up, where I want to hit it. People don't realize this but there is a lot of strategy to it. You've got to play to your strengths and that's my main focus while I'm on the golf course.
How would you describe your strengths?
My overall game is very solid. Nothing is really really good and nothing is really really bad. My misses are always very small so I don't make a lot of big numbers. I am very consistent.
Do you have a preferred shot shape?
I love hitting a draw. If the ball is going left-to-right, especially off the tee, it's not a good day for me!
What is your favorite club to hit?
Definitely my 8-iron. It's what I do all my drills with, and there's a big wear mark on it. I love hitting that club.
What does a practice session look like for you?
Normally I do my stretch, do a couple of drills, hit some balls, putt and chip a little bit, and maybe play nine holes. Then maybe do some more practicing. That's a typical day for me.
Last year as a sophomore, you had four wins and top-ten finishes in just about every tournament. Your worst finish, however, was at the NCAA Regionals (a tie for 35th). What happened that week?
I think I put a little too much pressure on myself. I thought we had a good team and we had a chance to make a good (NCAA Championship) run but that pressure kind of got to me. I was forcing things a lot, and I wasn't hitting it my best. I let my head get to me a little bit. Just the atmosphere of "top 5 or go home" was a lot of pressure and that's what kept me from having a good tournament.
Editor's note: only the top five teams advance from each regional to the NCAA Championship.
You rebounded to have a great summer, including high finishes in the Western Amateur and U.S. Amateur, then a Walker Cup win. What was that run like for you?
I don't know what it was, my game just clicked and I was playing some of the best golf of my life. The U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst was an incredible experience -- by far the toughest golf course I've ever played. The Walker Cup was also an amazing experience. To play with nine of the best amateur golfers from the United States, and to play against the top ten from Great Britain and Ireland, there's no experience like it. You've got 20 guys on one golf course playing for their countries and it was so awesome.
You won three of four matches at the Walker Cup including one with a putt on the final hole (against British Amateur champion James Sugrue of Ireland). What is it like to win a match on your last stroke?
I was more nervous on the first tee ball -- that was nerve wracking -- but there were probably 500 people around the green, and I had an eight-footer for birdie to win. My heart was racing
and I made the [putt] and that is something that I will never ever forget.
Earlier in that match, I was one down with two to play and I won 17. On 18, it was not really a driver hole, but I had the honor and I hit driver and put some pressure on him. He ended up hitting driver as well but he hit it right. I hit it to about eight feet, he hit it over the green, then chipped it to two feet. I had a putt to win, it dropped, and that's something I'll always remember.
You are from New Jersey but you left home to spend your last three years of high school home-schooling in Orlando. Was that a hard decision to make and how was the transition?
John Pak after making the winning putt against James Sugrue at the Walker Cup (Golf Digest Ireland photo)
It was very tough. I didn't really like the whole idea too much but my parents wanted me to do it and convinced me to do it. I didn't enjoy it too much but it definitely made my golf game way better. I wouldn't be here if I didn't make that move, I genuinely believe that.
But it was really tough. I lived [in Orlando] with my dad and my dad only. I have three older brothers and a sister, all in New Jersey, and my mom lives up in New Jersey so it was tough moving away from the family. But I made a lot of good friends and a lot of great connections in Orlando, and I think it definitely worked out.
Where did you train?
I worked with Sean Hogan at ChampionsGate
-- he's a David Leadbetter guy -- and I practiced at Orange Tree Golf Club
What was the biggest cultural difference between Orlando and New Jersey?
I can't say a whole lot because I was home-schooled. I only went to the golf course, the gym and... I only went to like four locations when I was in Orlando, so there wasn't a whole lot to see of the cultural aspect of Orlando.
You won the ACC Championship as an individual last year, and on your bio you said it was your greatest golfing accomplishment. Why is that?
I think it's the biggest tournament I ever won. The ACC is a very strong conference. We've got Georgia Tech, Wake Forest, Duke, Clemson -- a lot of great golf schools. There are always arguments about which conference is the best, and I might be a little biased, but I think ours is. To compete against those guys and to beat them in the conference championship... Only one other Florida State golfer has done that.
You will return to Florida State next year and not turn pro. What went into that decision?
I've always planned to stay four years. I love it here, I have a lot of friends here, my teammates are awesome, my coaches have been so supportive. I want them to know that I've got their backs as well, to stay four years. Also, the top five seniors [in the NCAA] will now get Korn Ferry Tour status. I don't know how that's going to work now [with the NCAA allowing current seniors to have one more year of eligibility because of coronavirus ending the season], but one thing's for sure and that is that I've wanted to stay here for four years and I definitely will. The bottom line is I love it here.
Favorite place to eat in Tallahassee?
Gordo's. I probably go more than once a week. I get a Cuban with fries and Gordo sauce. That Gordo sauce, I don't know what's in that, but it's addictive.
Favorite golf drill?
I like doing mirror work. We have a mirror set up in our hitting bay. I have three key positions and I do that before every single practice session, or try to.
Course you've most enjoyed?
Such a tough one. I had the most fun at Royal Liverpool where we had the Walker Cup. I don't think it's the best course [I've played] but I had the most fun out there.
What's in the bag?
I am all TaylorMade. I have the Sim driver, M6 3-wood, and a UDI 2-iron which is like five or six years old now. I have 750s from my 4-iron to my 9-iron. My putter is a TP Berwick and I've got to be honest, I don't know what the wedges are called, but the latest TaylorMade wedges.
I've been using the same type of [mallet-style] putter for about eight years. Some people [switch around] and it works for them. My teammate Jamie Li, one of the best putters I've ever seen, changes it up all the time. But he always goes back to that one special one.
Favorite college golf tournament?
The Cabo Collegiate
is my favorite tournament. B.A. Kline is the tournament host and she does an awesome job. She makes everyone feel welcome. I love the food there. The first day we got there, for breakfast I had 12 tacos. I just ate way too much but I loved it. We get to stay with host families and they are always so good to me.
Another one is our home tournament (the Seminole Intercollegiate). My friends come out and my family comes out. They are two different kinds of fun I guess. I like them both.
Favorite amateur golf tournament?
The Walker Cup. It's completely different. When you have that
much on the line, it's pretty amazing.