WINDERMERE, Fla. – When Na Yeon Choi was a rookie on the LPGA, she spoke so little English that she and her parents often ate at fast-food restaurants because the combo meals were numbered.
One of the few times they ventured out to a nicer establishment, Choi’s father ordered for the family by walking the waiter over to a nearby table and pointing to the plates of other patrons.
“We traveled like that for over one year,” Choi said. “It was a very hard time.”
On Friday, Choi sat in a dining room overlooking the first tee at Isleworth Golf and Country Club and handled a lunch interview as seamlessly as the other U.S. Open champion sitting nearby, two-time men’s winner Retief Goosen, might have done. Four years ago, this would’ve been a tortuous day for the player known on tour as NYC. In fact, downright impossible.
But now the reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion and No. 2-ranked player in the world can tell her story with ease thanks to the help of Greg Morrison, her English tutor turned manager. He was hired to accompany Choi year-round, an unusual commitment for players traveling in the U.S. To say the move has paid off would be putting it lightly.
As a slim Choi worked on a club sandwich and sweet-potato fries, her new trainer sat across the table talking about an upcoming trip to Disney World. Like Morrison, Jae Won Kim will travel with Choi every week this year, keeping her muscles relaxed and her body stretched. She has moved away from lifting heavy weights, finding the routine unnecessary.
Back at Choi’s new home, her mother, Jeong Me Song, a former restaurant owner and chef, works to feed the six people living there this winter. In all, Choi will be in her new home less than three months this year. But she’s never had a swimming pool or yard of her own, and while it means more upkeep than the townhouse she bought in ChampionsGate, the smile on her face says clearly that the move is worthwhile.
It’s easy to look at Choi’s white Range Rover, high-end accessories and coveted Isleworth membership and think “silver spoon.”
Not the case.
Choi’s father, Byeong Ho, a one-time aspiring golf pro, owned a gas station back home in South Korea. Because Choi’s family couldn’t afford the $300-plus greens fees, and a tee time was required to practice short game, Na Yeon set up a mat at the gas station and created her own makeshift range, hitting balls into a nearby rice field. At age 7, she learned to pump gas.
“I try to remind (myself) how I learned to golf,” Choi said. “I feel like I can’t forget that feeling.”
For seven years, a Korean instructor gave Choi lessons for free. She couldn’t always afford to travel to tournaments but received help when she made South Korea’s national team. Choi turned professional at age 16 and her dad sold the family gas station to have money to pay for their travel. She won her first event as a professional the following June on the Korea LPGA, and mom sold the family restaurant, her body, tired and achy from years of preparing 30-dish meals.
Choi enjoys the spoils of her success, but her great joy is found when she does something good for kids. She started out paying college tuition for a couple of kids close to her age. Then she paid for a boy and girl to travel from the Philippines to South Korea for heart procedures.
A 10-year-old boy from the Philippines who went by the English name John Wayne, told Choi his dream was to play soccer, an impossible dream given that his heart condition kept him from running.
“He can run right now,” Choi said, beaming. “I find I can’t stop.”
From there she went to an orphanage and then a special-needs facility, entertaining kids with a magician she brought in and furnishing each home with a computer lab. Last December, she set up bank accounts for 32 elementary school students, putting money in each to pay their school fees. At each event, Choi makes kimchi with her fans. At the last one, 500 heads of cabbage were used.
After winning the two biggest paychecks on the LPGA in 2012, Choi decided to again donate to the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, giving $30,000 for junior golf equipment. She’s working on partnering with a U.S. charity annually.
“I earn money here,” she said, “which means I should give back.”
And how has she repaid her parents, two small-business owners who took a chance and then reluctantly let their independent daughter go?
“I take care of all my family,” Choi said. “I think they all deserve it.”