Posted by: happyfan08 | July 13, 2012

Na Yeon Choi: Major Star

Blackwolf Run, the site of the recently completed 2012 US Women’s Open, is practically hallowed ground in Korean sports culture.  It was there in 1998 that Se Ri Pak became the first Korean and youngest golfer to win the most prestigious event in women’s golf.  I talked all about it in the previous blog entry, which you can access here:

https://seoulsisters.wordpress.com/2012/07/03/back-in-blackwolf/

This year, the Koreans came into the event in a bit of a drought.  Despite having several good chances to win in 2012, they had only managed a single LPGA win all year.  Fortunately, that win came at a Major, the Kraft Nabisco, but still it continued a troubling trend for them (started in the 2011 season) of contending a lot but only winning on occasion.

Before last week, Sun Young Yoo was the only Korean to win on the LPGA in 2012

The Koreans were especially motivated to win the Open this year, given where it was being contested.  Many of the top stars on tour were inspired to take up the game thanks to Pak’s win.  So Yeon Ryu, the defending champ, even posed for a photograph with her shoes off, hitting a shot from the same water trap as Pak had hit her iconic rescue shot from all those years ago (alas, the trap was drained at the time, lessening the effect Ryu wanted).  To win an Open on this course would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the immortals.  Even Pak herself had organized her entire season around her return to the site of her greatest triumph.

So Yeon Ryu takes off her shoes and socks to emulate her hero Se Ri Pak

After two rounds, however, things weren’t looking so great for the Koreans.  Inbee Park was in the thick of things, and Na Yeon Choi was still in it, four shots back, but most of the rest of the Korean stars were six or more shots behind and needed to have a fantastic weekend to climb back into the hunt.  On Saturday, many of the Korean golfers faded under the pressure.  They were not alone.  Even the top players in the world were producing some of the worst scores of the year.  Blackwolf Run was playing extremely tough.  Cristie Kerr, Suzann Pettersen and world #1 Ya Ni Tseng all shot 78, while top Korean star Hee Kyung Seo and world #2 Stacey Lewis shot 80.  If even those great players were struggling, you can only imagine how some of the lesser players were doing.

But amidst the carnage and an average score of nearly 77, one player emerged, shooting a round so brilliant than some are calling it the greatest ever produced at a US Women’s Open.  That player was Na Yeon Choi.

Na Yeon during her unbelievable Saturday round at this year US Women’s Open

Choi had already started playing golf when Se Ri Pak won the 1998 Open.  She was good enough even back then to have as her goal a professional golf career.  But when, as a nine year old girl, she witnessed Pak’s extraordinary win in Wisconsin, her entire outlook was irrevocably changed.  “After Se Ri won on the LPGA tour, I think all the Korean people or even a lot of players has bigger dream than before,” Choi said. “And even me, just dream was professional golfer on KLPGA tour. But after she won… I changed my goal. I have to go to the LPGA tour and I want to win on the LPGA tour. We have bigger dream because of (that).”

Like so many other girls of her generation, Pak’s win drove Choi to practice extremely hard.  She wedged in practice where she could.  Her father owned a gas station, and she worked there part time.  When she had a moment, she would work on her pitching by hitting balls over a heater.  At other times, she would hit balls into a field near her house, collecting the balls when she was done.

Through hard work like this, she became a great amateur, but she really emerged in the Korean public’s consciousness when she played a professional KLPGA event while still a 16 year old high school student.  The year was 2004, and the event was a new one, the ADT-CAPS.  Earlier in the year, Se Ri Pak had qualified for the LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame, but since then she had struggled mightily to return to her superstar form.  At the end of the year, things started to look better, and Pak agreed to play in the ADT-CAPS.  Choi would get a chance to play a tournament with her idol for the first time.

After playing brilliantly in round two, Choi found herself in the lead, with a chance to win a KLPGA event and in the process beat the woman she called ‘The Legend’.  She started round three in about as great a way as you can: with two birdies and an eagle, the latter after dunking a shot from the fairway.  Unbelievably, she now had a nine shot lead over Pak.  She would go on to win the event easily (Pak finished second), and many were predicting great things for the young star.

Choi was all smiles after the second round of the 2004 ADT-CAPS Championship

Choi would turn professional shortly after that and joined the KLPGA as a 17 year old in 2005.  She instantly became one of the most popular players on tour, and landed several lucrative endorsement deals as a result.  She would have a very solid rookie season.  Although she lost the Rookie of the Year race to Hee Young Park (also now a player on the LPGA), she still finished in the top ten on the money list that year.  She continued to be one of the top players on tour in 2006 and 2007, winning several more events and finishing in the top five on the money list both years.

Na Yeon hoists a KLPGA trophy in 2005

It was time for Choi to try her luck in America.  But unexpectedly, Choi was only able to snag conditional status at 2007 Qualifying School.  She would have to play really well in possibly limited action to improve her status and get her into more fields.  This is exactly what she did.  Playing with stunning consistency, it took Choi only three events to score her first top five.  By the time the year’s second Major had arrived, Choi had climbed into a comfortable lead in the Rookie of the Year race.  But then another rookie by the name of Ya Ni Tseng won the LPGA Championship to overtake Choi.  The two proto-stars would continue to battle for the rest of the year for that title, with Tseng finally putting Choi away at the last event of the year.  Those two players are currently #1 (Tseng) and #2 (Choi) in the world.

Choi quickly became a popular player. Here she poses for Korean Marie Claire magazine in 2009.

Choi’s LPGA rookie year was a preview of all the things that would make her great; chief among them, consistency.  In 2008, Choi did not finish outside the top 40 at any event until October, and did not miss a single cut all year.  She also notched top 20s in all four Majors.  She did not, however, manage a win.

It’s not like she did not have her chances.  In 2008 alone, she finished second at the Sybase Classic and had good chances to win two other events.  Finally, at the Evian Masters, everything seemed aligned properly.  She took a big lead in the fourth round, but with just a few holes to go, she blinked, and veteran Helen Alfredsson caught her, forcing a playoff.  Choi would lose that playoff to continue her winless ways.

Na Yeon was all smiles early in the fourth round at the 2008 Evian Masters

In 2009, Choi continued as she had the previous year: tons of top tens and top 20s, but no wins.  She finally broke through in the Fall at the Samsung World Championship.  At one point she had a seven shot lead, but then Japanese star Ai Miyazato began a relentless climb up the leaderboard.  Miyazato actually caught Choi on the final hole, but made a big mistake there to give Choi a chance.  Choi made a clutch birdie on that hole to eke out the win.  To prove it was no fluke, she won her second title just a few weeks later in Korea.

Na Yeon was all smiles after her second LPGA win of 2009 in her home country

Choi’s consistency and brilliance allowed her to claim three more titles in the next two seasons; she may be one of the few players on tour who has more career wins than career missed cuts!  She also topped the LPGA money list in 2010, only the second Korean to ever do that, and won the Vare Trophy for low scoring average to boot.  By 2011, she had climbed to #2 in the world.  But a gaping hole in her resume remained: she had yet to win a Major.  Like when she was trying to get her first win, she certainly had some great finishes at the tour’s biggest events.  In 2010 alone she managed a second at the US Women’s Open and a third at the British Women’s Open.  But victory eluded her time and again.

And so it was that Choi arrived at Blackwolf Run in July, 2012.  She told the press later that the course had her feeling like she had when she first started the game as an elementary school student; perhaps she was reminded of watching Pak’s victory all those years ago.  To actually be walking onto that course with a chance to win the biggest prize in women’s golf was a dream come true.  And after two days, she was in the hunt, four shots out of the lead.  Saturday would prove to be the most challenging day yet, with the toughest pin positions and some wind to test the players.  But amidst all the high scores that even the best LPGA stars were shooting came Choi’s unbelievable round.  Her consistency, her greatest hallmark, held her in remarkable stead.  She hit green after green, fairway after fairway, and made an amazing number of birdies, all without a mistake.  By the ninth hole, she had shot a 4 under par 32 to move to 5 under total and a one shot lead.  But she wasn’t done yet.  She made birdies on the 10th, 11th and 12th as well, and just like that, the lead was 4 strokes.  Choi finally had her first hiccup on the brutally tough 13th hole, when she three putted on the tricky green.  But she quickly righted the ship, making one more birdie on 17 to finish the day with an almost unearthly 65.  Her round had been insanely good: 12 shots better than the average of the field, and four shots better than anyone else had produced.  Only one other player, countrywoman Amy Yang, shot in the 60s on that day, and her score was a 69.  The next best score after that was 71.  The other players were dumbstruck at what had happened.  Choi had shot the greatest round of her career at exactly the right time.

Na Yeon and her new caddie Shane Joel consult during round 3

Choi went into the final round holding a six stroke lead over Yang.  The largest ever final round comeback in tournament history had been five shots.  Choi seemed thoroughly in the driver’s seat.  But this course had seen stars suffer big collapses, and Choi herself doubtless remembered her Evian collapse, or the near disaster at the Samsung.  Yang was brilliant in Majors, and like Choi was looking for her first Major win (in her case, first LPGA win, period).  It was not going to be a cakewalk.

Once again, though, Choi’s consistency and mental toughness came through.  On the front nine, she shot even par, and though Yang had cut into the lead slightly, Choi began the final nine holes nursing a five stroke advantage.  Everyone else seemed to be collapsing.  Yang was the only player who seemed capable of taking the prize from Choi.

Cruising along: Na Yeon after the 8th hole on Sunday

But then the troubles started.  Choi hit a terrible drive on the long par five tenth hole.  The ball went left into a hazard, and thanks to the way it crossed the hazard line, she was forced to hit her third shot from the tee.  Her fifth shot, from the rough, was terrible, scooting along the ground towards the hole.  She wound up with an extremely shaky triple bogey, and just like that, her lead was down to two.

Disaster? Na Yeon returns to the 10th tee after hitting the ball into the hazard.

Choi was not about to go gently into that good night.  The very next hole, she striped her approach to within three feet to make birdie and return her lead to three.  But on the 12th hole, she once again flirted with oblivion.  She hit her approach there into very high grass above the green.  The lie was so terrible that she consider taking an unplayable, but that might have led to dropping her ball into a lie no better than the one she already had.  She had no choice but to try to hit the ball out.  This she did magnificently, somehow punching the ball onto the green within 20 feet of the hole.  She followed that with a stunning double breaking par save.  The hole could have ended up costing Choi her entire lead; instead, she lost no ground at all.  The toughness that Choi had demonstrated ever since she was a kid, when she had taken up Tae Kwan Do as a pastime, had allowed her to work a bit of magic.

Stress during the 4th round

On the next hole, it was magic of a different sort that intervened.  The 13th hole featured water all along the right side, and the flag this day was on the right side as well.  It was a sucker pin position, and player after player had dunked their tee shot into the water.  Choi would have been wise to hit well to the left, but her tee shot traveled right and flirted with the water.  Amazingly, the ball bounced on the rocks next to the water and bounded left onto the grass just past the green.  It was a jaw dropping bit of luck.  Choi smiled to herself, and a few minutes later she made par again.  One or two more strokes saved.

Choi fixed what was wrong after that.  Hole 14 was a routine par.  She made birdie on 15 after knocking it close, and another birdie on the 16th to move back to 8 under and a five shot lead.  At that point, it was academic, and even a final hole bogey did little to slow her down.  Na Yeon Choi was a Major champion at last.  She was met by the customary champagne bath on the green, orchestrated by her hero, Se Ri Pak.  Choi gave Pak a little bow, a show of deep respect for the woman who had made it all possible, before giving her a long hug.  Choi later said that Pak had congratulated her for a job well done.  “She (said), `Hey, Na Yeon, I’m really proud of you. You did a really good job, and you (were) really calm out there,'” Choi said. Nothing could have meant more to her than hearing those words, from that person, at that place.

Na Yeon hugs her idol Se Ri Pak after winning the Open on the same course as Pak, 14 years later

For Amy Yang, it had to be a bit disappointing.  She finished at 3 under, four shots clear of the third place golfer.  Most years, it would have been Yang holding her first Major trophy.  But Choi’s brilliant weekend had made even Yang’s great week look bad in comparison.  Na Yeon, meanwhile, had a night to think about her win, then hopped on a plane and returned to Korea, where she was greeted with a hero’s welcome at the airport.  Previously she had dropped to #5 in the world, but the win put her back at #2, behind only her old rival Tseng.

Na Yeon arrives in Korea after her US Open victory

What will happen in the future is anyone’s guess, but Choi ought to have more confidence than ever.  If she can channel a little of the magic from that incredible Saturday in the future, she could very well become a legend to rival her hero Pak.  In the meantime, it’s time to enjoy the emergence of a superstar!

Na Yeon Choi, US Women’s Open Champion

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Responses

  1. Excellent recap and what a great win for Na Yeon Choi. Very much enjoyed the weekend coverage and the play of this 5’4″ giant in women’s golf.

  2. why does she always wear long pants?????

  3. Why not?


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