Choi Na-yeon took a tough path to the top, then she learned to live with herself
Golfers in their early 30s are often called “Se-ri kids” because they all started playing the sport after watching Pak Se-ri's historic win at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open.
Choi Na-yeon is a pre-Se-ri kid.
Born in 1987, Choi grew up competing in any and every sport with her older brother. One day, her parents suggested that the two try out golf.
“My dad gave me and my brother a golf club and told us to take a swing,” Choi says. “It wasn’t that fun.”
Swinging the club may not have interested Choi, but she fell in love with putting.
“I felt a sense of achievement when my putt rolled into the hole,” Choi says. “Since I really liked sports, I told my dad that I wanted to play golf while my brother said he wanted to continue playing football.”
The moment Choi told her dad that she wanted to play golf is where her story really begins.
As Choi started to get serious about golf before Pak changed the face of the women's sports in Korea with that 1998 victory, there weren't many young female golfers in the country.
This meant there wasn't much equipment either.
“Since I was small, I had to cut women’s golf clubs down to fit my height,” Choi says. “That how I started golf.
"My dad also found me a personal coach. From that moment on, I practiced every day. My coach would make me kimchi jjigae [stew], and really the reason I went every day was because it tasted so good. That was around when I was in third grade in elementary school.”
Despite not having that many people to compete with, Choi was a prodigy. When she competed in tournaments within her age division, she would win. Choi says that she was just happy that she got to take home the trophies.
Just a few months later, Pak made history and women's golf became the hot new trend in Korea.
“About five or six months after I started, Se-ri won the '98 U.S. [Women’s] Open,” Choi says. “Originally, there would only be around five golfers in my age division at the national championship. But after Se-ri’s victory, that number increased to like 50 to 60.”
But Choi was ready for the competition, and continued to dominate her age bracket. She eventually went on to become the youngest person ever to join the national team at the time.
At a certain point, golf started to feel easy for Choi, as all she had to do was put in the work and she'd pick up a win.
“No matter how much time it took, if I worked hard and put the effort in, I would see the results,” Choi says.
Perhaps that was the key to her success. When she was just 17, Choi made headlines by winning the KLPGA Tour’s ADT CAPS Invitational. She won the tournament not only as an amateur, but also finished four shots ahead of Pak.
Considering her successful amateur career, turning pro was an easy decision for Choi. She joined the KLPGA tour for three years — from 2004 to 2007 — picking up a win each year.
“Now, the Korean Tour has gotten more active and has higher prize money and more tournaments,” Choi says.
But when Choi was playing in Korea, there were a lot fewer tournaments and less prize money. Unsurprisingly, the KLPGA Tour at the time was seen as just a stepping stone, with the LPGA as the ultimate goal.
“Since the Korean tour was smaller at the time, I think [we] just did that to play on a bigger stage,” Choi says. “I played about three years on the domestic tour and headed to the United States.”
Once she got there, Choi had no information about how she compared to the competition or what the Tour was like. She said that it was like starting from the very bottom.
“I didn’t know a single word in English,” Choi says. “I didn’t like pizza or hamburgers, and the culture was completely different. Since my parents were also new to the country, the three of us went there and started without knowing a single thing.”
Lost in translation
Since Choi and her parents couldn’t speak English, she says that her first few years in the United States were full of misunderstandings.
“We didn’t know which hotel to book reservations at,” Choi says. “We would make a reservation and when we got to the hotel, we'd find that it was like the ones you see in crime movies. Your car would be parked right in front of the door of your room. We would sleep there, but there were bed bugs so we would get rashes, and the bathrooms were dirty.”
Choi laughs as she looks back at those days, but it clearly was very difficult. As they didn't have a home, Choi and her parents used to live out of a minivan.
Hotels weren’t the only issue Choi and her parents faced. Flights were another problem. When flights were canceled — which she says happened a lot — she would receive a voucher for a nearby hotel or other services, but as neither Choi nor her parents knew enough English to find the hotel or the bus to get there, they would sometimes end up just sleeping at the airport.
“I don’t know why flights get canceled or delayed so often in the United States,” Choi says. “Because we didn’t speak English, sometimes I would call a manager who can speak English and put them on the phone [with the employee at the airport]. At times, I was pretty sad.”
Settling for second
Looking through Choi’s long career on the LPGA Tour, she has become famous for always finishing as runner-up. Between 2010 and 2014, she finished runner-up 12 times and came third seven times while picking up five wins.
“In terms of my own record, it was getting better,” Choi says. “I never thought I was playing badly. But the talk I heard from people around me made me stressed. If I didn’t have that time and just won right away, then I feel like I would have had a much shorter career as a pro golfer.”
Choi believes that all those runner-up finishes made her stronger. If she had to choose the most important point in her career, it would be that time.
She’s had her fair share of ups and downs in her career, but Choi never regretted the decision to take this career path.
“If I had a child, I would never let it play golf,” Choi says. “But if I had to re-do my own life, then I would still play golf.”
What made golf so attractive to her? She says it was the sense of achievement.
“When I didn’t see the achievement at tournaments, that was the toughest time of my career,” Choi says. “But what made me stay for this long is that the achievement still showed in practice. I lived for that. I’m a very disciplined person.”
When Choi joined the LPGA Tour as a rookie in 2008, she spent a season without a win. This was the first year in her pro career without a single win.
Choi wasn't accustomed to losing and was struggling on the course. Off the course she was living out of dodgy hotels with all her belongs in a minivan with both of her parents and was completely unable to communicate with anybody else. She had never been so stressed before.
“My mom and my dad encouraged me and supported me a lot, but in my first season, I wasn’t winning,” Choi says. “So there was this stress that I was getting without even realizing. On days when I didn’t play well, I would return to the room and the atmosphere would be bad.”
It wasn’t that Choi and her parents were fighting, but everybody's mood was affected by her performance on the golf course. On days when she didn’t see the results she wanted, she would just go back to her room and stare at her phone.
Eventually, Choi made a huge decision.
“One day, I just told them to go back to Korea,” Choi says. “I told them that I would feel more comfortable without them. My dad was furious, but they went. I didn’t talk to my dad for a month.”
When her parents left, rumors started to spread among the other Korean golfers on the LPGA Tour, most of whom were also being escorted by their parents.
“After I did that, other players started using the same excuse as well,” Choi said. “They also started telling their parents to go back home like Na-yeon’s parents."
But the other parents didn't like that. Choi's parents would get phone calls from the disgruntled parents of other LPGA golfers claiming she wasn't practicing properly or that she had a secret boyfriend.
Choi was strong enough to withstand the rumors and convinced her mom that she was more determined than ever. She also proved it with her performance, picking up her long awaited first win on the LPGA Tour just a few weeks after her parents left, at the Samsung World Championship.
“After the awards ceremony and everything was done, I called my mom and she cried,” Choi says. “Since I wasn’t in a good relationship with my dad, I just asked my mom about dad and she told me that he cried too.”
Following her first win, Choi picked up her second later that year in November. Then, in 2010, Choi picked up three wins.
That season may well have been the peak of Choi's career. She won the LPGA Vare Trophy, the award given to the player with the lowest scoring average across the entire season, and also topped the Tour's money ranking.
In the end, sending her parents back to Korea turned out to be for the better for Choi, but there was one consequence: Since the moment Choi sent them back, her dad has never returned to the United States.
“For a year and a half, for the entire 2008 season and until the summer of 2009, we traveled together,” Choi says. “[But after I sent them back,] my dad never came to watch me play in the United States. Not even once. I think it's because he trusts me.”
Choi spent years traveling with her manager, coach and trainer. But since they were all male, she didn't find it easy traveling with the team all the time. Due to this, in 2015 she finally became completely independent.
Being completely alone could be lonely sometimes, but Choi was quick to adapt. In 2009, when her parents left, Choi intentionally set out to find a new pastime. Her first stop was Home Depot, Walmart and Target.
“When I went, the employees would walk up to me and talk to me,” Choi says. “That was my way of learning English. I would also go out to the theater to watch action movies. This allowed me to kind of forget about golf and enjoy [my life].”
And this is also when she started to see better results in her golf game.
A suggestion from a coach that she try to separate her golf life and personal life encouraged Choi to continue her grocery store outings, and she eventually took up cooking as well.
“From that point on, I would always book a hotel that had a kitchen,” Choi says. “I'd go out to the grocery store to cook for myself. When I got better at it, I invited my friends over to eat together. It’s tiring physically, but during that moment when I cook, I forget about golf. And I also liked other people enjoying the food I cooked for them.”
Rise and fall
If 2010 wasn't the peak of Choi's career, then 2012 certainly was. That year, Choi won the U.S. Women's Open, the most prestigious major on the LPGA Tour and the only major that she has ever won.
But once you reach the top, the only way is down. Choi picked up one more win in 2012 and then nothing in 2013 or 2014. In 2015, she appeared to be in the midst of a comeback with two wins, but it was at the second, the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship, that sudden back pain brought Choi's career to a halt.
“I didn’t know right away,” Choi says. “During the first round of the tournament, there was about a six-hour delay. We sat in a clubhouse and just waited. Once the weather got better, we hit a few shots on the range and went back out to the course. From that moment, my back was hurting. But I was ranked toward the top and still won. I was happy about it and just forgot about my back and continued playing.”
After the tournament ended, things got much worse.
Trying to play through each and every tournament, Choi's back got so bad that there was a point when she couldn’t put on socks, get in a car or go to the bathroom by herself. Due to this, she took three months off.
“I think that’s when my slump started,” Choi says. “I got the injury first. I took three months off and rehabilitated. Since I felt like I fell behind, after that three months, I started practicing a lot again, torturing myself again.”
Choi spent three years stuck in a cycle of agonizing training, rehabilitation, returning to training and reinjuring herself.
“During this time, it was really tough,” Choi says. “There was a time when I broke all 14 of my clubs after a tournament. I love golf, but I didn’t even want to look at a golf club. It became something I had to do, not something I want to do.”
Choi was starting to recover by 2018, but she still felt sad and unmotivated.
On the advice of her friends, she left golf behind for two weeks and traveled around Europe on her own.
“I made my decision to submit a medical and headed to Europe right away,” Choi says. “I got to spend some time of my own. I would rent a bike and ride by the river and scream. That’s when I realized that I can live my life without golf.”
Even after she got back from that trip, she didn’t touch a golf club for another four to five months.
“I got to spend time with my mom,” Choi says. “We went on a trip to Japan together. That was around 2018, when I was 30.”
Having completely rested, Choi returned to golf in September 2018.
Choi came back a different woman. She's no longer obsessed with results or constantly pushing herself to achieve everything. Her keyword now is balance. Mostly.
“There was a point where I pushed myself and played for nine consecutive weeks [in 2019],” Choi admits. “Aside from my performance during those nine weeks, the rest wasn't that bad. I guess it was another lesson that I learned, that I can’t push myself. I think I would give myself a score of 70 to 80 out of 100.”
Due to Covid-19, Choi played on the KLPGA Tour this year. Now that the season is over, the 33-year-old is focusing on her YouTube channel. She’s seen huge success with YouTube this season.
“By starting a YouTube channel, I think my life in general has gotten a little brighter,” Choi says. “Before that, since I wasn’t playing well, I just wanted to avoid people and wouldn’t talk. By starting YouTube, I think I’ve gotten more fun, talkative and brighter than back when I was at the peak of my career.”
Considering Choi’s age, she is getting close to retiring from the LPGA, but she isn't finished yet.
“Finishing my career well is part of life that I will have to accept,” Choi says. “Stepping down well is very important. I had a lot of thoughts about what stepping down would mean.
"I feel like if I play until the moment when I know I will have no regrets, that’ll be the right time.”
BY KANG YOO-RIM [email@example.com]
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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