KOHLER, Wis. – Se Ri Pak and Blackwolf Run owner Herb Kohler stood by the clubhouse on Saturday afternoon and marveled at Na Yeon Choi’s stunning 7-under 65.
On a day when the average score was 76.89, Choi dropped eight birdies and opened a six-shot lead over fellow South Korean Amy Yang with one of the finest rounds in U.S. Women’s Open history.
“Actually, I couldn’t believe how I got eight birdies today,” Choi said. “But I did. I’m very happy and I’m very satisfied.”
Choi has spent a great deal of time as No. 2 in the world and is regarded by most as the best player never to have won a major. Saturday’s round should go a long way in shedding that descriptor. Only four rounds have been lower in U.S. Women’s Open history. Choi hit 12 fairways, 15 greens and had 26 putts on a gusty day when only five players broke par.
“I think she had like 11 putts for the first nine holes,” said Nicole Castrale, who played with Choi. “I didn’t think it was out there, but I was proven wrong today.”
Choi credits new caddie Shane Joel for much of her success on the greens. The pair worked together for the first time last week in Arkansas, and Choi put complete trust in his ability to read the greens. Joel had worked for the now injured Mark O’Meara for the past eight years, winning three times with him.
“When he tells me the target,” Choi said, “I just think about speed.”
Blackwolf Run is a special place for South Koreans, with Se Ri Pak kickstarting a revolution with her dramatic victory here in 1998. In a way, it seems only fitting that one of “Se Ri’s kids” would win this week. Choi, 24, reshaped her dreams after Pak’s triumph in Kohler, setting her sights on the LPGA rather than the Korean tour.
Pak’s work ethic is legendary, and her father’s influence set forth a blueprint that countless Korean parents have followed.
Choi is a bit of a pioneer in her own right. The LPGA’s Sean Pyun, director of tournament business affairs, said that Choi was the first Korean player to essentially say to her parents, Mom and Dad, I love you, but I need to do this on my own.
Choi wanted to immerse herself in the American culture. Where her Korean peers traveled exclusively with their parents, Choi wanted to make her own schedule. If she wanted to go to the mall after a round or have dinner with friends, she didn’t have to get permission.
It wasn’t that Choi had a poor relationship with her family. Quite the contrary. She simply wanted to experience an independent lifestyle, and other players are beginning to follow suit.
For all the success Korean players have experienced in the past 14 years, they’ve been criticized for not being able to communicate with the American public. The situation reached a breaking point when former commissioner Carolyn Bivens tried to force players to take an English proficiency test to play on tour. Fortunately, that idea never became law. But it highlighted a big problem for the LPGA: Fans find it hard to root for players whom they know nothing about.
Pyun sat four rows back in the media room beaming with pride as Choi conducted her post-round press conference. Her commitment to learning English (she used to travel full-time with an English tutor) was on full display. Choi said she was more nervous addressing the media than she was addressing shots, but it never showed.
“I tried to improve my English because I want to connect with all the American fans and media,” said Choi, who goes by NYC. “I just do my best every day, learn a lot of vocabulary.”
Choi, a five-time winner on the LPGA, has seven top-10 finishes in the majors. She carded a final-round 66 at Oakmont to finish tied for second at the 2010 U.S. Women’s Open.
No one expects Choi to go out tomorrow and shoot a bloated number, though the USGA doesn’t plan on making things much easier for players. Choi is among the most consistent players on tour, winning the 2010 Vare Trophy for low scoring average. She has had double-digit top-10 finishes in the past three seasons on tour.
To catch Choi, someone will have to put on a Sunday performance that’s equally jaw-dropping.
“I wouldn’t expect her to do the same thing tomorrow statistically,” said Cristie Kerr, who shot 77 and sits nine shots back. “So maybe I can pull out a low round.”
Blackwolf designer Pete Dye wasn’t at all offended by the fact that red numbers are on the board, saying that if the best players in the world don’t shoot under par, something is wrong with the golf course.
Five players enter Sunday’s round under par. Choi has a chance to become the fourth player from South Korea in the past five years to win the U.S. Women’s Open.
“I just want to hit without regret,” she said.