Na Yeon Choi defends U.S. Women's Open championship on Long Island
Winning the U.S. Women's Open trophy, probably the most daunting challenge in women's golf, proved the least of Na Yeon Choi's hurdles last July. The hard part for her came the next day at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, on the way from Wisconsin to her home in South Korea.
"The trophy box is really big and solid. One of the security guys didn't believe what was inside. I kept saying, 'It's the trophy.' He didn't believe I won the U.S. Women's Open,'' the 25-year-old said recently at a news conference, in English, without notes.
"I opened the box for him. Then he believed me.''
There was no such confusion at the end of that trip. People in South Korea are very familiar with that shining silver prize and the golfers who keep toting it back there. Choi was the fourth Korean to win America's national women's championship in the past five years, and the most recent to follow the lead of Se Ri Pak, who changed the sport when she brought the trophy home in 1998.
Pak ignited a golf boom among girls and women in Korea, and the echoes still are rippling everywhere. This week, they reach Long Island as the Open comes to Sebonack Golf Club in Southampton.
"I think it's a beautiful place to play golf,'' Choi said after a practice round at the course.
She was talking specifically about Sebonack, but she might as well have been referring to the country that conferred her greatest achievement.
Choi still goes to her homeland whenever she has two or three weeks off, but she has a spacious home in the Orlando area and practices at Isleworth. She has developed an appetite for everything American, particularly hamburgers. "I can have it for breakfast,'' she said.
Truth be told, her hobby is cooking. She often spends two hours preparing dinner for her manager, trainer and herself. The point is, she has come a long way from the days when she ordered menu items that had pictures or were numbered because she could not converse.
She knows about the disconnect between the American public and top Korean players, so after she won the LPGA Tour money title in 2010, she was determined to learn English. She hired a full-time tutor who traveled with her and spoke nothing but English with her. She watched full seasons of "Glee'' and "24,'' which helped with slang.
"During tournaments, I can have a conversation with the players, or the caddie. I think that helped me. It's a little thing, but it's a big thing,'' she said, adding that she feels confident texting, too.
Choi's comfort on either side of the globe is an example of how the women's golf world changed when Pak won the 1998 Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. She influenced a generation. Annie Park and Kelly Shon, who both played in the U.S. Women's Open last year, grew up on Long Island with parents who moved from Korea. "I think I sort of started golf because of her,'' Park said at the 2012 Open.
Recently, Choi said, "I started golf 1997, December 23. I remember the day.'' Her father, Byeong Ho Choi, a gas station owner and aspiring Korean tour golfer, wanted to pass his dream along to his son and daughter. With Na Yeon, it stuck. She was willing to spend 10 hours a day practicing, sometimes off a makeshift mat behind the gas station.
Seeing Pak succeed helped. "Honestly, I didn't know what the U.S. Women's Open was,'' Choi said. "I just heard that she won the biggest tournament and I just got the feelings."
She got stronger feelings last summer when she won at Blackwolf Run. Pak, having tied for ninth, was there on the 18th green to congratulate her.
Choi is grateful to her role model and to her own parents, who sold the family business to support her career.
Still, she became convinced that she needed her independence, so she firmly insisted that her mother and father return to Korea. "When they heard that, they were mad,'' she said. "My mom was crying and I was crying.''
But three months later, she secured her first tour win. And she has flourished as the person they raised her to be: paying for a young boy and girl to travel from the Philippines to Korea for heart surgeries, setting up bank accounts to pay for education for 32 young children, donating $30,000 to the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf program.
This is a new world for women's golf, and Choi likes how she fits in it. "I think I'm a pretty happy person, [when] I can help someone. And I'm happy to play golf because I love to play golf,'' she said. "It's kind of the same feeling, but different feedback.''