Pearl Jin earned a black belt in Taekwondo at the age of 7. Too young to pursue a second degree, mom and dad signed her up for a group golf class at a par-3 course in Arcadia, Calif. It wasn’t long before a local pro declared Jin “a genius” at golf.
But it wasn’t only golf – Jin scored 147 on an IQ test while in elementary school. Smart enough to skip three grades and start college at USC at the age of 15, the exceptional Jin tackled life at warp speed.
“I first saw her at 13,” said renowned swing instructor David Leadbetter. “I thought, boy, this girl is going to be something really special. She had it all, she really did.”
Sadly, Jin never suited up for a round of college golf as a Trojan. Diagnosed with osteochondritis dissecans or “little league elbow,” Jin never could capitalize on the talent that saw her claim her first AJGA title at 12 years, 3 months and 11 days and become the youngest player to qualify for match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur, advancing to the second round in 2007.
“It was dark,” Jin said, “but I used pre-medicine to distract me a lot. I volunteered with JEP, Joint Educational Program, at USC and we went to rural schools around the area and taught health. I knew I was doing something good still.”
Jin’s wild ride continues. Just last week she signed with Wilhelmina International in New York and has an upcoming shoot with MAC Cosmetics. The now 23-year-old entrepreneur started out pre-med at USC, made the dean’s list and then quit to study law at Monash University, moving to Melbourne, Australia, at age 17.
“My personality didn’t fit,” she said of the about-face from medicine. “I was too clumsy. I make really small calculation errors.”
In Oz, Jin began doing modeling work. When she returned to the U.S. after law school, Jin competed in Miss California, representing Los Angeles.
“It helped me learn how to be poised and graceful,” she said of pageant work. But modeling was more her style.
“At the end of the day,” Jin said, “I think everyone is so beautiful and unique in their own way. It’s hard to compete for who’s the prettiest.”
Jin moved back to the U.S. last January, and her latest ambition marries two of her passions: modeling and golf. In 2018, Jin created Hollywood Model Caddies, an agency that provides “luxury caddies services.” Jin hopes to have 500 licensed caddies – both males and females – in a year’s time. She’s currently recruiting around 100.
“I noticed this whole trend of Instagram golfers,” Jin said. “That’s when I was like, how do I implement Instagram golfers with a business?”
She also had time for some training videos.
Of course, it’s also a way for aspiring (and/or struggling) fashion models to make money on the side. Jin is bullish on making sure novice caddies go through a training program.
In time, Jin might get a master’s degree and take the bar exam.
“I have enough going on right now,” she said.
Two years ago a local club fitter apologized to Jin’s mother, Yolanda, saying he felt responsible for Jin’s elbow injury. He’d fitted the lanky 9-year-old for men’s equipment back then and feared the weight of the clubs had caused her chronic pain.
“They said she had the tendons of a 40-year-old,” said Leadbetter, who wondered if too much practice at an early age – before the body had finished growing – led to the injury. He says the same of Michelle Wie, who has battled hand and wrist injuries since she was a teen.
Yolanda, a deeply spiritual woman who named her daughter after the Bible’s most treasured jewel, wasn’t one to push Pearl. Quite the opposite, actually. It was Pearl who woke her up at 5 a.m. so they’d be at the course when it opened.
“She tried everything,” Yolanda said. “Before surgery she had nine MRIs and six X-rays … acupuncture, cortisone. She cried. I cried too.”
Andrea Gaston, now head coach at Texas A&M, tried to talk Jin out of coming to school so early. Jin’s father, Michael, did the same. Looking back, Gaston believes she might have done things differently.
“It’s a tough thing for a coach,” Gaston said. “If I don’t take her, somebody else will. We all like to get that chance at somebody who could be a star.”
Jin slept in the library most nights freshman year because her roommates had a party list for every day of the month. The music was so loud, she said, their living room vibrated.
“Twenty shots this night, bottle of tequila the next,” Jin said. “My mouth dropped to the floor.”
She could relate to the pre-med students though, who like her preferred to study. Yolanda dropped off food every day to her daughter’s apartment but didn’t know when Pearl picked up two jobs – working at a sushi restaurant and teaching golf – when her golf scholarship was gone.
“I worried for her every day,” Yolanda said. “I prayed for her every day. But she’s very tough.”
Life ahead of the curve often leads to unpredictable turns. The bullet train Jin boarded as a pre-teen never made it to the LPGA. Her body wouldn’t allow it.
A decade ago in a condo in Bradenton, Fla., Jin was taking 10 high school classes at once to graduate early, watching Scooby-Doo to unwind. No one dared imagine that at age 14 she had reached the pinnacle of her golf career.
“I think you have to find something you absolutely love to do,” Jin said.
And when that’s taken away, find something else. Gwk