Kraft notebook: Choi looking for breakthrough

Na Yeon Choi at No. 1 on Thursday at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – Yani Tseng’s dominance at the majors means other players are missing out. Tseng has won four of the past eight and five overall. Her game, her mind has been groomed for weeks like these. She has no intention to share.

So who’s the most talented player without a major championship? Once Paula Creamer shed the label in 2010, the answer became less obvious. Casual golf fans might point to familiar names such as Michelle Wie or Lexi Thompson. The true front-runners, however, are Na Yeon Choi followed by Ai Miyazato.

Choi, ranked No. 2 in the world behind Tseng, goes about her business rather quietly on the LPGA. A five-time winner on tour, Choi won the Vare Trophy and money-list title in 2010. Choi has seven top-10 finishes in 16 major championships since she joined the tour in 2008. She’s a hallmark of consistency.

Choi tied for second two weeks ago at the RR Donnelley Founders Cup in Phoenix and complained of a sore back. She has had five sessions of acupuncture in recent days and says she finally has found relief. Choi carded a 1-under 71 March 29 in the opening round of the Kraft Nabisco Championship at Mission Hills' Dinah Shore Tournament Course.

“I think everything is right on track,” she said.

While Choi keeps a low profile in the U.S., she’s a household name in her native South Korea. Surprisingly, Choi said she doesn’t feel added pressure from back home to win a major title. She takes the same satisfaction from winning a Korean LPGA event as any other.

That being said, she has thought about what it would be like to win this week. In fact, just thinking about it makes her palms sweat. Not the prospect of winning, but rather what comes next.

When Choi was a small child, she nearly drowned in a lake in South Korea. Her father jumped in to save her, but now even walking into the ocean makes her heart beat fast.

She might have a solution for the winner's traditional leap into Poppie’s Pond off the 18th green, though.

“I need a tube,” she said gesturing to her waist, “and then I can jump in the water.”

Surely someone has a floaty.

• • •

Slow motion: Stacy Lewis suffered a trio of three-putts in her opening 74. The defending champion pointed to slow greens as her biggest obstacle of the day, and she wasn’t alone.

Creamer described the greens as Velcro and said they’re the slowest she’s even seen at Mission Hills. She left more than her share of birdie putts short in a 3-under 69. It’s a solid start for the Pink Panther, who hasn’t finished better than T-15 at this event.

• • •

Hall-worthy: Yani Tseng is four points shy of qualifying for the LPGA and World Golf halls of fame. A victory here would put her halfway there. To be inducted into the LPGA hall, Tseng needs 10 years of service, which she would reach on her 10th event of the 2017 season. At 28 years old, Tseng would eclipse Se Ri Pak as the youngest ever inducted, at 29 years, 8 months and 8 days.

“The Hall of Fame is my dream since I was young,” Tseng said. “So I always keep that in my mind, and I try to win every tournament, focus on every tournament to see how can I improve that.”

• • •

The odds are: The oddsmakers had Amy Yang at 66/1. She shot 66. Instructor Tom Creavy likes her chances this week.

Yang, who is often mistaken for Creavy’s longtime pupil Se Ri Pak, has worked with Creavy for nearly three years.

Aside from appearance, Creavy said the pair are both overly methodical and analytical. He’s constantly trying to find ways to help bolster their creativity. Creavy said his experiences with Pak have helped him mentor Yang.

“I’ve given her a head start,” he said.

Creavy noted that PGA Tour players might spend an hour on the range working on the tee shot they need to shape on the 13th at Augusta. Similarly, he’s encouraged Pak and Yang to do the same for the dogleg tee shots needed on Nos. 7 and 9 at the Dinah Shore course.

While Pak wasted no time in winning majors on the LPGA, Yang has yet to find the winner’s circle. Still, her record is impressive. Yang finished in the top 20 in all four majors last year, finishing fourth at the Ricoh Women’s British Open. This is her third appearance at the Kraft.

“Playing on the LPGA was my dream like since I started to play golf,” Yang said.

A dream set in motion by Pak, a player whom she resembles in more ways than one.

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