NAPLES, Fla. — Na Yeon Choi can afford to super-size that house she’s looking to buy. She has an 11 a.m. appointment at Isleworth on Monday, but she’s only looking to get a golf membership there. Choi, winner of the two biggest paychecks on the LPGA this season, will likely buy new digs in Vizcaya, a popular community for tour players near Bay Hill in Orlando, Fla.
“I think I can buy bigger than I thought,” said a smiling Choi, moments after accepting a $500,000 first-place check at the CME Group Titleholders.
Choi, 25, carded a final-round 70 to beat So Yeon Ryu by two strokes for her second title of the year and seventh in her LPGA career. She won the U.S. Women’s Open in July at Blackwolf Run, providing the perfect bookend to Se Ri Pak’s historic victory there in 1998. She also bagged the biggest winner’s check of the year on the LPGA: $585,000.
While an American won the Rolex Player of the Year award for the first time since 1994, it was also an impressive year for Korean players. Inbee Park won the money title and Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average. Three Koreans won majors in 2012: Sun Young Yoo (Kraft Nabisco), Jiyai Shin (Ricoh Women’s British Open) and Choi (USWO).
On Sunday in Naples, it was a back-nine duel between two Korean USWO champions Choi and Ryu.
“I think it all depends on their putting,” said Park, when asked to assess her compatriot’s games. “Whoever (is) the best putter on that day is going to win.”
Ryu backed up Park’s prediction: “The big thing is today I couldn’t trust myself on the green, so that’s why I couldn’t win this tournament.”
Choi started off slowly with a double-bogey on the third hole. She bounced back quickly, however, with an eagle on the par-5 fifth hole. Choi conceded that the hiccip on No. 3 actually helped calm her nerves as she performs better when she’s chasing in a tight race.
Choi wasn’t as crisp with her approach shots on Sunday but confidently hit a 52-degree wedge shot from 79 yards to 3 feet on the par-4 16th. That put her two shots ahead of Ryu with two holes to play.
This marked the first time her mother has seen her win a tournament overseas. Seeking to be more independent, Choi told her parents several years ago that she wanted to travel on her own. The CME is the only tournament her mother has attended outside of Korea this year, and she’s really only here to help Choi house-hunt.
“I’m pretty sure my mom was really nervous today because I couldn’t see her on the course,” Choi said. “I don’t know, maybe she followed the front group.”
All week long Choi’s mother cooked her Korean food. Her caddie, Jason Hamilton, jokingly calls it “kimchi power,” referring to the Korean-style cabbage dish. It was a comfortable week for the player known as “NYC.”
Choi bought a townhouse in ChampionsGate several years ago where one of her instructor’s, Kevin Smeltz, is based and has practiced out of Reunion. Smeltz recently recommended Isleworth as a place with impressive short-game facilities for winter training. Even though Choi stays in Orlando roughly 10 weeks a year, she feels the move is worthwhile.
“You know, I think that’s an investment in myself,” she said.
Choi made a similarly wise investment when she hired Greg Morrison as her full-time English tutor and paid for him to travel with her. In 2011, they had a daily one-hour lesson and spoke throughout the day and at meals in English. This year Morrison wasn’t able to be on the road with her so they used Skype. Choi hopes to have him join her again in 2013.
“When I learned English and when I tell my feelings to people, I feel way more comfortable than before,” said Choi. “I think that made (me) a good golfer, too.”
Not to mention a rich one.