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Monday, July 9, 2012
Na Yeon Choi makes her own history

By Mechelle Voepel

KOHLER, Wis. -- A few years ago, Na Yeon Choi sent her parents back to South Korea. It was time, she decided, to be a big girl and take care of herself in the United States.

Was she scared? Of course. She was still learning the two disciplines that were so important in her continuing maturation: golf and English. Being on her own in a different country would be challenging. There would be no mom and dad around to cook for her, help her pack/travel, or be there for her during the hard times.

But this was somebody who used to wrestle other kids in her neighborhood with the motto, "First to cry is the first to lose." A natural athlete and very much her own person, Choi was ready to captain her ship.

She sailed to the U.S. Women's Open title Sunday, the first major championship for a thoughtful, intelligent, determined young woman who could very well win several big titles in her career.

"I said, 'I think I need to be more independent, and I can learn something from independence,'" Choi said of the difficult conversation she had with her parents when she opted to go it alone in the United States. "I said, 'Please trust me.' "

Now, they will be waiting -- along with the rest of the nation -- to welcome her as she brings yet another Women's Open trophy home to South Korea. She is the sixth from her nation to win this title; Koreans have won four of the past five Women's Opens.

Choi won at 7-under 281. She had her worst round of the tournament Sunday, a 1-over 73. But it was more than good enough with the cushion she had built herself after a majestic 65 on Saturday.

With a 6-shot lead going into the final round, all Choi really needed to do was stay out of trouble to get the trophy. She did add a little drama to the proceedings with a triple bogey at No. 10, a pressured long putt for par at No. 12, and a bogey at No. 13. At one point, her lead dwindled to two shots over countrywoman Amy Yang, the only competitor who was close and ended up finishing second at 285.

Yet there really was no rattling Choi, who at 24 now has six LPGA titles and will move back to No. 2 in the world. She has been ranked that high before but was without a true "signature" win. Now she does, and it came on the very same course where the first South Korean woman to win this title did so 14 years ago.

It was with sincere respect that Choi graciously bowed to Se Ri Pak before embracing her Sunday on the 18th green. What a moment that was for those who love sports history: The intersection of the past and present that needed no manufactured emotion.

"She said, 'Hey, Na Yeon, I'm really proud of you, you did a really good job,'" Choi said of Pak's greeting to the new champion.

Admittedly, we in sports media sometimes grab onto a narrative and milk it well past dry, even when it's not as meaningful to the participants as we might wish it to be. In this case, though, the storyline of Pak's 1998 Women's Open playoff victory inspiring a nation truly shouldn't have a freshness expiration date because it's still so relevant to what Korean women do in golf.

Pak's first major was the LPGA Championship in May 1998. At that point, she was popular in South Korea. But her subsequent Women's Open triumph in July of that year made her mega-popular in a nation then dealing with economic woes and a crisis in self-confidence. Pak's victories on the golf course didn't just inspire little girls to play golf, they inspired a country to keep believing in itself.

And those little golfers who watched her on TV then, they certainly have grown up well. Choi was 10 years old that summer of 1998 and had just started playing golf. Choi also played soccer -- she was known for accidentally busting a few windows in her neighborhood with booming kicks -- and practiced tae kwon do. But seeing Pak lift the large silver trophy thousands of miles away, Choi was captivated.

"My dream was, 'I just want to be there,' " Choi said. "And 14 years later, I'm here right now. And I made it."

The danger for American audiences is that, unfortunately, they may see the Koreans as a monolith, instead of stopping to listen to or read the personal stories that make each of them unique.

Choi recognized that in 2010. She topped the LPGA money list and was winner of the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average but realized she really wasn't known by American fans or media. And that mattered to her. She didn't just want to be a foreign name on the leaderboard in the United States.

"I said to my dad, 'I might need to really study English,'" Choi said. "He said, 'Do whatever you want.' So I said I would find an English tutor and travel with him a whole year."

After she did a live post-round television interview Saturday, Choi got a text from her tutor complimenting her on how well she spoke.

"That makes me confident to speak English," Choi said.

She should be -- not only is her English very good, she's also quite eloquent in her second language.

She spoke about how her parents initially wept and were a little angry when she told them she needed to go solo to grow as a golfer and a person. But not long after her "declaration of independence" in 2009, Choi got her first LPGA victory. She had won four times before that on the Korean LPGA tour, but the breakthrough in the United States was confirmation she had made the right decision.

Choi appreciates how far she has come and the support she has gotten. Her father owned a gas station, and she grew up working there. When things weren't too busy, she would hit golf balls that her father caught with a catcher's mitt. Other times, she would hit into a field behind her house and then retrieve all the balls herself.

All that time, in the back of her mind was the plan to one day win the trophy that Pak had. Choi kept her nerves in check Sunday even when they were the most tested.

After the triple-bogey on No. 10, Choi knew the best thing she could do was immediately distract herself. So on the way to the next hole, she talked to her caddie, Shane Joel, about her upcoming trip home to South Korea and what his plans were. She and Joel -- who in the past has worked for PGA golfer Mark O'Meara -- just partnered together last week.

Choi said she tends to "focus" in the exact moments in which she is hitting her shots, but in the time between them, she tries to relax. That way, a long round doesn't seem quite so mentally taxing.

At one point Sunday, when walking down the fairway, she talked with playing partner Yang about dogs, as Yang had noticed a picture of Choi's puppy on her yardage book.

That shows the camaraderie among the Korean players, which Pak long has helped foster. The "grand dame" had a bottle of champagne to spray on Choi at 18 on Sunday, after Pak actually had played pretty well herself.

Pak, who has been dealing with a shoulder injury, shot her best round of the tournament -- a 1-under 71 -- and finished tied for ninth. Pak talked this week about the memories that came back for her on the return to Blackwolf Run. The interesting thing was, being at this course for the first time had a magical effect on Choi, too.

"When I came here Monday," Choi said, "I think that feeling through my head or my heart reminded me how I started playing golf. That special feeling makes me strong."

And even in the rush of winning -- with the fame and the $585,000 check it brings -- Choi was thinking about the future. Way in the future, in fact.

"I really wish like 14 years from now, some young golfer will say, 'I was watching on TV how Na Yeon played, and that was really inspiring to me,'" Choi said. "That's all I want, really."