Kim, Choi poised for breakout 2011 seasons

Song-Hee Kim (left) and Na Yeon Choi take it easy in Choi's Florida home.

Song-Hee Kim (left) and Na Yeon Choi take it easy in Choi's Florida home.

Editor’s note: This story appeared in the Feb. 11 issue of Golfweek.

• • • 

ORLANDO, Fla. – The box of Legos rattled loudly as Song-Hee Kim sifted through a sea of tiny parts. The quiet Korean can sit for hours piecing together the motorized carousel that’s coming to life on her bedroom floor. The Legos serve as an escape for Kim, a hobby that’s far easier to control than the game from which she makes a living.

ROOKIES TO WATCH

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Kimberly Kim: Youngest to win a U.S. Women’s Amateur, at 14, she has an abundance of raw talent

Jessica Korda: Sailed through Q-School without her “A” game; adds much-needed American spunk

Belen Mozo: Spanish charmer will try to follow in the footsteps of best friend Azahara Munoz

Hee Kyung Seo: KLPGA’s “Supermodel of the Fairways” earned card by winning 2010 Kia Classic

Jennifer Song: 2009 U.S. Women’s Amateur/WAPL champ is exceedingly mature and consistent at 21

Down the street at ChampionsGate, Na Yeon Choi opened the door to an almost identical townhouse. Her parents were in town for last fall’s Tour Championship, though unlike Kim, Choi spends most of her time in the U.S. on her own. Independence is Choi’s mantra, and the framed photos from a magazine shoot in South Korea that sit above her cream-colored sofa depict a woman who’s not afraid to take charge.

“First time in a skirt,” Choi said, pointing to her black leather get-up.

Choi and Kim, Nos. 5 and 9, respectively, in the Rolex Rankings, share more than a strong friendship. The Koreans have the same swing instructors (Robin Symes and Kevin Smeltz), trainer (Andrea Doddato) and mental coaches (Vision54’s Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott). Their straight black hair is cropped short, and low-rise, loose-fitting boot-cut pants typically hang from their slender frames. They easily blend into the LPGA’s vast Korean landscape.

Five of the top 10 females in the world are Koreans, led by No. 1 Jiyai Shin. When the LPGA begins its season Feb. 17 in Thailand, 43 Koreans will have status on tour. For perspective, Sweden has 13 members and Australia and Canada each have nine. Seventeen Koreans finished inside the top 50 on the 2010 LPGA money list, compared with 14 Americans.

The LPGA bristles when media and fans clump the Koreans into one overly talented box. The best way for Choi and Kim to break out – other than winning 10 times in one season – is to improve their English. Both are committed to the cause. Choi recently hired a full-time English tutor who will criss-cross the globe with her in 2011.

“I hope to be getting better soon,” Choi wrote in a text. “I still have stress.”

Last fall in Arkansas, Choi talked without the aid of an interpreter about her reaction to missing the first cut of her LPGA career (in 63 starts) at the LPGA Championship. Choi’s mother, Jeong Me, suggested she go to the grocery store and buy a carton of eggs. Then she told her to throw them. Choi hurled the eggs at the walls of her hotel kitchen until she felt the anger release.

“Then I cleaned it up,” Choi said.

The egg episode helped Choi clear her mind, and she went on to shoot 64 in the first round of the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic the next week and beat three Kims in a playoff for her third LPGA victory.

“She had slipped back to her old habit of all the focus being on outcome and scoring,” Nilsson, Vision54’s co-founder, said of Choi’s missed cut.

Choi ended the season No. 1 on the LPGA money list after successfully defending her title in Korea. She topped the tour in several categories: scoring average, birdies, rounds under par, rounds in the 60s and sand saves.

Choi started playing golf at age 8 after watching Se Ri Pak compete. From that point on, Choi’s long summer days were anything but lazy. She arose at 6 a.m. and went to the course to play nine holes. She often stayed until 9 p.m., helping friends on staff clean up. Then she headed to the lighted practice range. Her father, Byeong, was always by her side.

“Almost every Korean parent is with their kid,” said Choi, who as a child sometimes felt overburdened.

Choi turned professional at age 17 and her parents sold both of their businesses (a gas station and restaurant). She played three years on the KLPGA with her father on the bag before finishing 11th on the money list as an LPGA rookie in 2008. Toward the end of ’09, the expectation to win was almost suffocating.

“If I finish second or third place, nobody says you did a great job,” Choi said.

Choi met with Vision54 the week of the 2009 Samsung World Championship and learned that she can’t control a victory. The technically sound player was introduced to a new way of thinking. By that Sunday, she was hoisting a trophy.

“We think it’s extraordinary that she can be her own person and still respect her family and culture,” said Nilsson, who along with Marriott authored the book “Golf Parent For the Future.” Choi and her parents have read the book, which focuses on ways to inspire children rather than apply pressure.

“2009, still I had a lot of stress from everybody,” Choi said. “Song-Hee is the same right now. I know Song-Hee is feeling it.”

Unlike Choi, Kim still is saddled with the burden of winning.

Kim’s father, Chu-bea, a retired contractor, put 90,000 miles on a 2007 Honda Odyssey driving his youngest daughter around the Futures Tour. After dominating the developmental circuit, Kim hit a rookie roadblock with a virus that left her fatigued.

“When I lay down on the bed, I feel all the power going down; I can’t even move,” Kim said. “Doctor said it’s amazing you can walk.”

Kim regained her health, morphing into a machine of consistency. She ranked second last year in greens in regulation, which accounts for her 15 top-10 finishes.

Doddato worked extensively last season on improving Kim’s posture, the drooped head an extension of her shy, humble personality.

It seems that Kim, a natural athlete who excelled at soccer and basketball, lacks the confidence that’s required on Sunday, when tensions and distractions are magnified. Whereas Choi has a more aggressive, organized approach, Kim has trouble focusing down the stretch and, as Marriott said, “gets more scattered” and loses her natural feel.

“Metaphorically, she doesn’t have a thick enough skin,” said Marriott, who taped Kim practicing a victory speech in an attempt to reduce one more potential back-nine distraction.

What Kim does have is a lot of patience, as evidenced by the model Taj Mahal, made of nearly 6,000 Legos, that’s sitting on her bookshelf. Most agree it’s only a matter of time before the unassuming Kim knocks down the mental barriers that have kept her from the winner’s circle. Choi already has the tools to ascend to No. 1.

“I feel like I’m living in a fantasy world,” Choi said.

A world where relentless pursuit meets lofty expectations.

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