SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Breaking ties is never easy.
Tears and anger often follow. Emotions can run high, especially when loved ones are involved.
Na Yeon Choi reached such a crossroads in 2009, three years before her U.S. Women’s Open triumph at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. She was a few months shy of her 22nd birthday, and Choi felt the time was right to assert her independence.
She wanted to make her own decisions, whether it was picking out a house in her adopted hometown of Orlando, Fla., or studying English so she could converse comfortably with media, pro-am partners, fellow competitors and fans.
Ever since she first picked up a club, Byeong-Ho and Jeong-Me Song had been there for Choi – her mother for support and her father, as is often the case in Korean culture, for discipline and motivation. No matter where she competed, Choi’s parents followed. Byeong Ho, a former aspiring tour professional who failed twice at Q-School in Korea, even caddied for her when she first turned pro in 2004.
But Choi increasingly found that her parents’ presence had become a hindrance to her development, both on and off the course. By the middle of her second full season on the LPGA Tour, Choi was despondent. She recognized that she needed to make this life-altering decision.
“They were so mad,” Choi, 25, said last month after a practice round at Sebonack Golf Club before 2013 U.S. Women’s Open Media Day. “Mom was crying. I was crying. For three months, we didn’t talk on the phone. They thought I would come back after three months.”
Four weeks after the split, Choi registered the first of her seven LPGA Tour victories at the Samsung World Challenge. A year later, she topped the 2010 LPGA Tour money list and won the Vare Trophy for the lowest stroke average (69.8). Since joining the LPGA Tour in 2008, Choi has amassed just under $8 million.
Choi’s transformation from the shy introvert of 2009 has been remarkable. At media day, she joked about being nervous before her speech, then delivered her remarks with aplomb.
Mixing humor with an engaging honesty, Choi recounted an awkward situation at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport last July, when a security official didn’t believe that the oversize suitcase she was hauling contained the U.S. Women’s Open Trophy.
Neither parent came to Blackwolf Run when Choi blistered the field with a third-round 65 en route to a four-shot victory over countrywoman Amy Yang. Once fixtures at such events, they are no longer interested in attending.
But they watched on television from afar and anxiously awaited Choi’s return to Korea for a family celebration. Any lingering pain her decision four years ago has dissipated, and her relationship with her parents couldn’t be better. They flew to Florida over the winter to spend a few weeks helping her move to another home in Orlando that’s closer to Isleworth, the private club where Choi recently purchased a membership so she could take advantage of its superb practice facilities.
They even spent a few days in Miami playing golf as a family for the first time. Byeong-Ho still shoots in the 70s, but Choi’s mother and her brother, Chang-Hwan, a university student, are neophytes.
“Before they didn’t know how to play golf,” said Choi. “They say, ‘Why did you miss that putt?’ Once they started golf, they knew it was difficult.”
Choi returns annually to Korea for a few weeks, but for the most part she has transitioned nicely to America, and she enjoys cooking meals with her support team or socializing with her many friends in Orlando. Many LPGA and PGA Tour players reside in the area, leaving Choi no shortage of practice partners.
Thanks to her ever-improving English, Choi no longer requires a translator for interviews. In fact, she occasionally serves as a media interpreter for other Korean players.
Two years ago, Choi realized that she needed to learn English. Through Robin Symes, her Korea-based swing coach, she met Greg Morrison, a Canadian who had moved to Korea to teach English. Morrison became Choi’s manager in January.
“She’s now a lot more comfortable,” he said. “It’s amazing how much she has improved since the U.S. [Women’s] Open last year.”
Another remarkable trait is her benevolence. Even at 17, Choi understood what her parents sacrificed to help fulfill her dream of playing professional golf. From the time she collected that first check in 2004, Choi told her parents that she was going to help others reach their dreams.
Among the recipients of Choi’s generosity was a Korean orphanage, which received 10 computers. When she discovered through a Seoul hospital that a 10-year-old Philippine boy couldn’t afford a heart transplant, Choi paid for the boy to fly to Korea for the surgery. Today, he can play soccer with his friends.
Once she began winning in the U.S., Choi wanted to do something for youngsters in America. Twice she has donated $30,000 to LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, saying “I want to give the girls my message: Have a dream and achieve it.”
A few months after her Women’s Open triumph, Choi wrote a check to the Boys & Girls Club of Sheboygan, Wis.
“They don’t really know golf, but I try to help them fulfill their dreams,” said Choi. “The feeling [of giving back] is amazing. Of course, I’m happy to play golf because I love to play golf. [Giving to charity] is the same feeling, but it’s a different feedback [than winning a tournament]. ”
Although Choi has yet to produce a victory in 2013, her results have been consistent, with four top-10s in eight starts, including a second at the HSBC Women’s Champions in China. This past winter, she began working with trainer J.K. Byun, who introduced a stretching and massage regimen to her workouts.
During the off-season, Choi spent nearly two hours, five to six days a week, on preparing for the season. The workouts have tapered off since the season began.
As a youngster, Choi developed early athletic skills from taekwondo. She also played a lot of baseball and soccer with her older brother, who recently returned to college after a mandatory two-year stint in the Korean army.
While her brother gravitated to soccer, Choi, at age 11, discovered golf through her father, who took her to a fitting center to get proper equipment when she decided she wanted to play.
Choi has been serious about the game from the moment she first heard the ball go into the hole, and Se Ri Pak has been an inspiration since Pak’s 1998 U.S. Women’s Open victory at Blackwolf Run, which has been credited for triggering the golf boom in Korea. It meant the world to Choi to be hugged by Pak on the same green where the seminal moment had occurred.
Many current Koreans on the LPGA Tour grew up idolizing Pak. It was Pak’s father, however, who laid the blueprint for what many call the “golf daddies,” the ambitious fathers who incessantly push daughters to succeed.
For Choi, even on days she doesn’t feel like hitting the range, she reverts to the work ethic instilled by her father.
“My dad always pushed me,” she said. “He told me if you don’t go to the practice range, then you can’t eat dinner or lunch. He told me to play with your friends on the practice range or putting green.”
That discipline has never abated, even though her parents are now several thousand miles away.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.