Waiting on history: Na Yeon Choi looks for a major breakthrough
KOHLER - An apology can be the hardest task a person has to face, reducing green speeds and water hazards to happy distractions. Na Yeon Choi knows this, perhaps better than most.
The Monday following her first LPGA Tour victory at the Samsung World Championship in September, 2009, she readied for a phone call home to South Korea. She was a champion, a year after she won over $1 million and had nine top 10 finishes in her rookie season on the LPGA Tour.
Yet she wasn't in a total celebratory mood as she dialed her father, Byeong Ho Choi, and mother Jeong Me Song. Instead, she was working up an "I'm sorry."
Four months prior to that victory, she had told her parents to go home.
Her father was angry; Choi and her mother sobbed. It was an emotional conversation, but one Choi felt she needed to have – and a demand she needed to make.
"I was kind of scared," Choi told OnMilwaukee.com in an exclusive interview. "I couldn't believe in myself – can I do it, or not? I did it always with my parents, even to decide where I have to go. My father controlled me. But, I thought I needed it, I need more independence, and I have to grow up. No more inside my parent's arms."
She looked down and adjusted the items in front of her on the table, shifting her iPhone back and forth, turning her hot tea cup around on its saucer.
"I realized that I needed more connection with the fans or American people so I told my parents I needed to mature, so please you guys go back to Korea and now I travel with an English tutor and personal trainer," she said. "So they go back to Korea and I started travel with the English tutor and personal trainer."
Liberated, she won. But it wasn't a complete victory.
Her parents picked up.
I'm sorry about that - you guys should be here and after I made the winning putt to get the hug on 18. I feel really sorry about that, but please trust me, I did a good job and I'm never going to stop and keep going and working hard every day.
She has held up her end of the bargain, rising to as high as No. 2 in the world. She speaks nearly flawless English, and is a fan and media favorite.
"They really trust me now," Choi said.
The flip side is her parents have not returned to the United States since, preferring to let her continue on the path she chose to follow without them.
"I tried to invest more in myself. It's a lot of money," she said. "I have to pay them everything, but I think it will come back to me. That moment I learned a lot of English and after that I feel more comfortable living in the United States. I can share my emotion to people and I can talk with the people. I feel really comfortable."
That comfort has shown over the last three years, as Choi has won four more times and has earned over $1 million in each season. In 2010 she won the money title and Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average.
The success has led to the question most elite golfers hate hearing – when will you win a major championship?
Choi has been dubbed the best South Korean player to have not yet won a major, and along with Ai Miyazato is definitely in the conversation as one of the best players in the world to have not claimed one.
She didn't come to the U.S. Women's Open with the goal of winning however – it's something she cannot control. Instead, she focused on what she could: solid ball striking, proper green reading, and her mental state.
Don't mistake that attitude for complacency – she is a fierce competitor and wants to win majors. She's been close, too, with eight top 10 finishes in 19 starts, including a tie for ninth in the 2009 U.S. Women's Open and a tie for second in 2010.
Standing in way, often, has been good friend Yani Tseng. The pair broke onto the LGPA Tour together in 2008, with Tseng edging her for Rookie of the Year. Tseng has proven to be everyone's foil in women's golf as the world's top ranked player and winner of five majors.
"The bad thing is that we play in the same generation," Choi said with a laugh. "The good thing is we are kind of like good rivals. When she plays well or when I play well, I think we motivate each other. Sometimes I play a practice round with her and we know our games very well. I think it's more of a good thing. We're going in the right direction and working hard. I think we really motivate each other."
Choi has bested her good friend twice, beating Tseng by a shot to win the 2009 Hana Bank-KOLON Championship and the 2011 Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia.
The two have been paired together in the first two rounds this week as well, with Choi opening the tournament with a 1-under 71 - perfect position with the leader two shots ahead. Tseng shot a 2-over 74.
"We've known each other about ten years already and we're always playing golf together in Orlando, so it's fun," Tseng said. "We talk a lot outside the golf course and having lots of fun on the course. She's a great player. She can really hit the ball well and she's a great putter, too. One day she will win."
To many, that day is Sunday at Blackwolf Run. It is pressure she recognizes, but refuses to accept.
"Especially a lot of Korean fans, they expect me to. Right now it's time to win a major tournament," she conceded. "But I don't know - I can't control that. So even if I win a major tournament or not, it doesn't matter – all the wins are the same to me. Also, I'm number (five) in the world, but my goal is to be number one. But, it's pretty far away. I mean, Yani is playing so well and we have a lot of gap, but I'm just playing, or going to my goal. I'm just step by step to my goal."
After all, it's a smaller challenge than the biggest she's overcome. Once she gets there, no apologies will be needed.
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