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Published: Sunday, 8/5/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

Choi appreciates 5-time champ Pak paving way for Koreans

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Na Yeon Choi won the 2010 Farr Classic with a 14-under 270. She recently won the U.S. Women's Open and is ranked No. 2 in the world. Na Yeon Choi won the 2010 Farr Classic with a 14-under 270. She recently won the U.S. Women's Open and is ranked No. 2 in the world.
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First came Se Ri Pak and Toledo golf fans certainly know her well as a five-time champion of the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic.

Her stunning early success -- two major championships and her first Farr win came during her rookie season of 1998 at the age of 20 -- spawned a revolution.

In '98, Pak was the only South Korean player on the LPGA Tour. Within 10 years 44 others had joined her on the U.S.-based circuit.

One of them, Na Yeon Choi, was 10 years old in the summer of '98 when, inspired by Pak's exploits, she picked up a golf club for the first time.

Now, Choi is the highest ranked among the Korean contingent, an accomplishment of which she is justifiably proud.

READ MORE: 27th Annual Jamie Farr Toledo Classic Fan Guide

Choi, who after a one-year delay will defend her 2010 title during this week's Farr Classic at Highland Meadows, comes to northwest Ohio as the newly-crowned U.S. Women's Open champion. She is No. 2 overall in the world rankings behind Yani Tseng of Taiwan.

"Being the top player from my country means a lot to me," Choi said. "I feel it's an honor. Sometimes there's some pressure from Korean friends and media. So much is expected. But I work hard and practice hard and just try to do my best each round. If I do all that then I can play without any regrets. I always try my best because I know young golfers are watching my game."

Just as she watched Pak's game.

It seemed appropriate that Choi's U.S. Open win came on the same course -- Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wis. -- where Pak scored her breakthrough Open triumph in '98. And it may have been a coin flip over which was the bigger thrill, actually winning or having Pak leading a group of Korean players onto the 18th green to shower Choi with champagne.

"I really appreciate what Se Ri did and [what] all the Korean players did," Choi said afterward. "[There's] really no way I can be here without them."

Choi became the fourth South Korean in five years to win the Open, joining Inbee Park (2008), Eun-Hee Ji (2009), and So Yeon Ryu (2011).

In 2010, Choi became the fourth South Korean to win the Farr Classic, following Pak, who won five times between 1998 and 2007, as well as Mi Hyun Kim (2006) and Eunjung Yi (2009). And perhaps to drive home the point, Choi won on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff against three Kims -- Koreans In-Kyung Kim and Song-Hee Kim, and Christina Kim, who was American born of Korean parents.

"It was the first playoff victory of my life," said Choi, who put herself in contention right from the start with an opening-round 64. "I've been in playoffs five times and that's my only victory.

"I remember everything about the course and the tournament, it feels familiar, and I'm very thankful we're back playing in Toledo this year."

She's not sure, though, if duplicating her 14-under total for 72 holes in 2010 will be good enough this time.

"It's going to be hot in August, the ball will fly, and I think people will [score] lower," Choi, who turns 25 in October, said. "You'll have to make a lot of birdies on the par 5s at Highland Meadows."

Might she be the one to do it?

"I'm playing pretty well," she said. "I have some confidence."

 

DEFENDING CHAMPION

Na Yeon Choi

Nationality: South Korean

Nickname: Big Apple (Hint: Look at her three initials).

Age: 24.

Birthplace: Seoul.

U.S. Residence: Orlando, Fla.

Career Earnings: $6.6 million since joining the LPGA Tour in 2008.

Career-Low Round: 63

LPGA Victories: 2012 U.S. Women's Open; 2011 Sime Darby LPGA Malaysia; 2010 Jamie Farr Toledo Classic and Hana Bank Championship; 2009 Samsung World Championship and Hana Bank-KOLON Championship.

Professional Highlights: It's hard to top the recent U.S. Open title, but 2010, the year she won the Farr Classic, was a pretty good one too. Choi topped the tour's money list and captured the Vare Trophy for low scoring average with a 69.8 average. In addition to her two tournament wins in '10, she posted nine other top-10 finishes.

She Cares: Choi made a trip home to Seoul several years ago and visited a hospital where she saw an 11-year-old girl cowering in the corner of a ward. Doctors explained that she needed surgery to correct a rare brain disorder, but that her parents, who had physical and psychological problems, were indigent. There was no insurance. Choi negotiated with administrators at the medical center, and they agreed to do the surgery in return for a donation from Choi. She opened her checkbook and wrote a check for $20,000. The surgery saved the girl's life. Said Choi: "It wasn't a matter of money. The girl was going to die. The amount wasn't important."

World Ranking: Yani Tseng of Taiwan is No. 1 in the Rolex women's world rankings. But Choi is No. 2 and she said being at the top of the large and talented South Korean contingent is something for which she is very proud.

Second Language: When Choi won at Highland Meadows in 2010 she needed an interpreter to assist with all interviews. She also felt as if she was at a disadvantage with U.S. fans. So Choi traveled throughout the 2011 season with an English tutor and by the time she returned to Toledo recently for the Farr Classic's media day, she spoke her new second language almost fluently.



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