Na Yeon Choi takes control of U.S. Women's Open

Na Yeon Choi of Korea watches her tee

Na Yeon Choi of Korea watches her tee shot on the first hole during the third round of the U.S. Women's Open. (July 7, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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KOHLER, Wis. -- Na Yeon Choi was one of those young golfers in Korea, a 90-shooter at 10 years old, who was inspired to see the highlights of Se Ri Pak winning the U.S. Women's Open right here 14 years ago. "A lot of players had bigger dreams than before," she said.

Even by that standard, it would have been just about impossible to dream of a round like Choi had Saturday. When the wind ripped through Blackwolf Run and made the average score 5-over-par 77, Choi had a walk in the park. She shot a historic 7-under 65 and gained a six-stroke lead heading into the final round of her favorite event.

"This is a very special golf course and [I'm] very honored," Choi said in English, which has become a common language for Korean golfers because of Pak. Choi admitted she did not stay up and watch Pak's playoff win live from Wisconsin in the middle of the night, but the tape of the celebration was everywhere. "When she take off shoes and socks, I remember that feeling."

The bottom line is, the Women's Open is the one tournament that Korean players have taken to their hearts. Choi played it Saturday as if she owned it, tying the best score ever in a Women's Open third round and finishing two shots shy of the best score in any round. She birdied her first two holes ("I had good vibes from there," she said) and blew away the wind-tossed field by making five birdies in the six-hole stretch from 7 to 12.

"Hats off to her. That was one of the best rounds I've ever seen and I've seen some good ones out here," said Nicole Castrale, who played with Choi and shot a respectable 74. "I made back-to-back birdies on 11 and 12 and I still didn't have the tee."

Na Yeon Choi of Korea watches her tee shot on the first hole during the third round of the U.S. Women's Open. (July 7, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

As Michelle Wie walked to the scorers' trailer after a 78, she joked that she thought that there had been a scoreboard malfunction, at the top. Suzann Pettersen, the second-round leader who looked as if she were going to run away when she birdied No. 1 to go 6 under, said after finishing with her own 78, "I couldn't believe the scores I saw, to be honest."

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On a normal day, the talk would have been about Choi's countrywoman Amy Yang, who had an impressive 3-under 69 to go 2 under for the tournament. This was just no normal day. Not with Choi hitting 15 greens in regulation and making eight birdies. "Her game is really good, you know," Yang said. "She hits the ball so good, putting very good. I think she's a great player."

Choi traced it all back to Pak's win at Blackwolf Run. "I think all Korean people think a Korean couldn't win on the LPGA Tour. But she did," Choi said, adding that her own childhood dream had been to play pro golf only in Korea. "I changed my goal."

At 17, she won a Korean pro tournament as an amateur, in a field that included Pak, whom the younger generation Korean golfers call "The Legend." Pak shot 76 Saturday and is 5 over -- one better than the winning score here in 1998. By 2010, Choi was the leading money winner on the LPGA Tour.

Women's golf is a whole new world now. Choi played as if she owned the tournament, and her country isn't far from owning the trophy. A win by Choi or Yang today will be the fourth in five years by a Korean in America's women's national championship.

"I know what I have to do and I know what I can control. I cannot control winning, I can't control score, so I just do my best," Choi said. "I really want to continue that feeling and I want to give to all the Korean people what Se Ri did 14 years ago."

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