By Beth Ann Baldry, Golfweek
KOHLER, Wis. – A Korean player was destined to win this week. Se Ri Pak and Na Yeon Choi crossed paths on the ninth and 18th holes – which share a double green – in a passing of the torch type moment Sunday afternoon.
Pak kickstarted the Korean revolution on this very ground 14 years ago, winning the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open on Pete Dye’s demanding Blackwolf Run. A 10-year-old Choi watched that moment on TV back home in Korea and set a new goal: Play on the LPGA.
Now she’s the fourth Korean in the last five years to win the U.S. Women’s Open.
“My dreams come true,” said Choi, who closed with a 1-over 73. “It’s an amazing day today. I really appreciate what Se Ri did and all the Korean players. It’s really no way I can here without them.”
Koreans have won 11 majors since 2001, topping all countries. Three Korean players finished in the top 5 this week. Paula Creamer, the 2010 USWO champion, was low American at T-7.
What makes Koreans so hard to beat? As a group, they seem to outwork the competition.
Walk on a range late in the day on any given day and Koreans are grinding. They’re out on Mondays, squeezing in as much practice as possible. Their outside interests are often limited, and their focus is unmatched. Even when they aren’t winning, they’re peppering leaderboards.
Choi pointed to a difference between how the cultures show support.
“I think American parents or American people like to compliment,” Choi said. “But Korean people, like Korean parents, sometimes talking too much or teaching too much. But I think Korean people get motivated from other people.”
Parents and players alike will be motivated by this performance, highlighted by an outstanding third-round 65, one of the best rounds in championship history.
Choi, 24, had shaky moments on Sunday, including a triple bogey on the par-5 10th that cut her lead over Amy Yang to two shots. She bounced back with birdie on the 11th and drained a 20-foot par putt on the 12th hole. Even the rocks were kind, helping her ball stay dry on the 13th to avoid disaster.
“A major you need to play well,” said World No. 1 Yani Tseng, “but sometimes you need little luck too.”
Choi went on to birdie Nos. 15 and 16 to extend her lead and closed the championship with a four-stroke victory over compatriot Yang. Choi finished at 7-under 281 for the championship while Yang was at 3 under. They were the only two players in red numbers for the tournament.
This marks Choi’s sixth victory on the LPGA, helping her shed the label of best player never to have won a major. She is projected to move from No. 5 in the Rolex Rankings to No. 2.
A key part of Choi’s evolution of a player came when she asked her parents to return to South Korea. Choi joined the tour in 2008 and one year later, had a rather uncomfortable conversation with her parents (mom cried). She told them she wanted to be more independent and asked them to go back to Korea and relax and support her from home.
“I still practice hard and work hard,” Choi said. “So like please, trust me.”
Four weeks later, she won for the first time on the LPGA at the Samsung World Championship and never looked back.
Pak, carrying a bottle of bubbly, ran onto the 18th green Sunday evening to celebrate. Choi gave her a little bow, a sign of respect to an elder who paved the way for every Korean player on tour.
“When I came here on Monday, I think that feeling through my head or through my heart, reminded me how I started playing golf,” Choi said. “That special memor(y) or special feeling made me strong.”