Na Yeon Choi finds community, support while adapting to LPGA

Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Na Yeon Choi finds community, support while adapting to LPGA

LPGA Tour

Na Yeon Choi finds community, support while adapting to LPGA

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Na Yeon Choi still remembers the taste of the first meal she ever cooked in her hotel room. It was horrible.

And yet, it was the taste of freedom.

She’d go out to big-box stores like Wal-mart, Target and Home Depot after practice and test out her English on the store employees, taking advantage of the perfunctory, “How can I help you?”

She didn’t think about golf after she left the course. After a good night’s rest, she’d head back out the next day refreshed.

That independence came only after a painful decision.

After a top-10 finish in her second year on tour, Choi found herself crying in the bathroom because her parents were unhappy with the result. They meant well, of course. Quizzing her after rounds about strategy and forcing her to practice in the hotel room.

Na Yeon Choi poses for photographs at Brickyard Crossing. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

But Choi wanted control of her own life, and 10 years ago bravely asked her parents to move back to South Korea.

“My dad was like, ‘How dare you?’ I sacrificed my life for you, and you’re playing the LPGA,” recalled Choi. “I want to see you win.”

A few months later, Choi did win, and then cried about the fact that they weren’t there to see it. A few weeks after that, she won her second LPGA title in South Korea, and everyone was on hand for the celebration.

In the first half of Choi’s career, when she won nine times, including the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, she found it difficult to open up with friends on tour. What can someone in the winner’s circle possibly have to complain about?

“I think that’s why maybe after I won the tournament or had a good result,” said Choi, “I felt a little empty feeling when I came home.”

Even when she hired a support team to travel with her, it still felt lonely. After all, they’d never been on tour before or played golf as a professional.

“My main sponsor, SK Telecom, is a cell phone company,” said Choi. “I don’t have to pay my phone bill for the last 14 years. I talk a lot to my Korea friends.”

Three years ago, a back injury coupled with the driver yips led Choi to seek the wisdom of a couple of World Golf Hall of Famers in Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon. She spent five days over the Thanksgiving holiday opening up about everything.

Daniel had suffered from the putting yips three times in her career.

“One of the first things we tell a person who is struggling with the yips is that they have to remove the emotions from it,” said Mallon. “They cry every night. They get to the golf course and they’re emotionally drained before they even get started.”

Mallon and Daniel helped Choi get back to focusing on the right things, including smaller targets.

Last year they called Choi to check in.

“They asked me how I am doing and I said ‘I’m good.’ And they said ‘You are a liar,’ ” Choi recalled. “I broke down crying hard and said I need a break.”

Not just for her back, but for her mind and spirit.

“She’s actually one of the only players who really listened to us,” said Mallon, who believes far too many players don’t take the proper amount of time to recover from injuries.

Choi took a medical exemption last year and embarked on a solo trip around Europe, sending back photos of her adventures to Daniel and Mallon

Na Yeon Choi poses for photographs at Brickyard Crossing. (Photo: Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

“I thought golf is my life and everything and I couldn’t go away from golf,” said Choi, “but actually I could do it.”

Six months ago, Choi moved to Las Vegas and said she feels settled in her new surroundings. She has learned how to cook, and enjoys serving up Korean favorites on the road with friends. During the dark times, Choi discovered a community of support.

“Since I got more friends and share true feelings, sometimes I cry in front of friends,” said Choi, “and after that I feel a lot better. I feel relief.”

Choi’s mother comes over during the offseason and helps her with everyday life while she practices. These days Choi can share her deepest thoughts in English with no problem. The ability to communicate fully and be uplifted by veterans like Mallon and Daniel, even Karrie Webb at the airport earlier this year, has helped to feed her soul. Choi plans to stay in America even after she retires.

“I feel full,” she said, “not empty anymore.”

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