Na Yeon Choi started playing golf at the age of
ten. Within less than a year, she was already winning tournaments.
She quickly became one of the top amateurs in Korea.
Choi made her biggest splash as an amateur when,
at age 17, she won the ADT-CAPS Invitational on the KLPGA tour.
She beat Se Ri Pak, who finished second, by four shots. This turned
her into an instant celebrity in Korea. She turned pro shortly thereafter,
and quickly landed several lucrative sponsorships.
In 2005, Choi joined the KLPGA tour, where she did
quite well. Although she lost the Rookie of the Year award to Hee
Young Park, she was second in that race, and finished top ten on
the money list. She had another strong season in 2006, highlighted
by a win at the third KB Star Tour event. She wound up finishing
third on the money list, and was thus picked to play for the Korean
team at the Kyoraku Cup.
Na Yeon played some LPGA events in 2007, but didn't
do too well at them. She made a bigger splash on the KLPGA. During
the first part of the season, she was shut out of the winner's circle,
but she eventually had several big finishes, including a win at
the Shinsegae Cup KLPGA Championship in September. She wound up
finishing 4th on the year end money list.
Meanwhile, she was already thinking about her next
career step. She won the second LPGA Qualifying School sectional
in 2007. She thus came into Q-School looking for an exempt card,
but she just missed one, finishing two shots out of the money. Nonetheless,
she did grab a high conditional status for 2008.
Choi didn't take long to establish herself in her
rookie season on the LPGA. In just her third event in Mexico, she
nabbed a tie for 5th, and followed that with a tie for 6th a few
weeks later at the Kraft Nabisco, the year's first Major. This gave
her the early lead in the Rookie of the Year race, and she continued
to cling onto that until June. At that point, Taiwanese star Yani
Tseng became one of the youngest woman to ever win a Major when
she snagged the LPGA Championship. Tseng took over the lead in the
ROY race, but Choi would seize it back again several more times.
Choi did this through astonishing consistency. Week
after week, she put up good finishes, not finishing outside the
top 40 at an event until October, and making every cut. She had
top 20s in all four Majors as well.
She also put herself into contention to win. She
finished tied for 2nd at the Sybase Classic, and had a chance to
win the Ginn Tribute and the P&G Beauty NW Arkansas Championship
as well. Finally, at the Evian Masters in July, everything seemed
to come into focus. With a few holes to go, she had a four shot
lead and seemed certain to collect her first win. But she stumbled,
wound up in a playoff, and eventually lost to Swedish veteran Helen
The next week, Tseng finished second at the British
Open, and soon after that regained the Rookie of the Year lead.
Tseng would finally win that title at the last event of the year,
but Choi made over a million dollars in 2008, and finished eleventh
on the money list. That's a fantastic debut season by any measure!
Choi had much the same kind of season in 2009, with
multiple top tens and twenties and no missed cuts. She finally broke
through late in the year at the Samsung World Championship. She
had a seven shot lead at one point on the final day, but with one
hole to go found herself tied with Ai Miyazato. Fortunately she
made birdie on that hole to claim her first LPGA win at last. Just
a few weeks later, she grabbed her second win at the Hana Bank Kolon
Championship in Korea. With those successes, Choi had firmly established
herself as one of the very best Korean golfers in the world.
In 2010, Choi took a huge step forward in her career,
with easily her best season yet as a pro. The year started much
as her previous years had, with a lot of consistency and a few great
finishes. Then she missed her first ever LPGA cut at the LPGA Championship.
This seemed to spur her on, for from that point on until the end
of the year, she was one of the very best golfers in the world.
In fact, her next five finishes were top threes, including a win
at the Jamie Farr, a second at the US Women's Open, and a third
at the British Women's Open. She also finished third at the KLPGA
Championship when she briefly played back in Korea in the Fall.
Her world ranking improved by leaps and bounds as
she continued with her awesome consistency. In October she won her
4th career title at the Hana Bank, successfully defending her crown.
She had a chance, coming into the year's final event, to win all
the major post-season awards, but wound up with two: the top of
the money list (her $1.8 million total was a new all time record
for any Korean golfer), and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average
(she is one of only three Koreans to finish the year with a sub-70
average). Her Rolex ranking rose to 4th, her highest ever. She is
fast catching up with Jiyai Shin (who was #1 at the end of the year)
as the most accomplished Korean of her generation.
Choi had another superb season in 2011. Though her
stats were not quite as impressive as in 2010, Shin had a fairly
weak year, and so Choi assumed the title of highest ranked Korean
in the world by the end of the year. In all, she notched 12 top
tens (including a tie for 7th at the British Women's Open), had
the second best scoring average in the league, and made over $1.3
million in 2011.
After missing only her second career cut at the
US Women's Open, she had a particularly strong second half of the
season. She had a great chance to win the Safeway Classic in August,
but struggled down the stretch, falling into a playoff with Suzann
Pettersen. Choi lost the playoff when she hit her approach shot
on the playoff hole into the water. After 2 more top tens, she had
another good chance to win at the Korean LPGA event, the Hana Bank.
But she couldn't shake world #1 Ya Ni Tseng, who beat her by a shot.
The next week, however, Choi got revenge by beating Tseng by a shot
in Malaysia for her 5th career win. It was also the 100th win on
the LPGA tour by a player of Korean ethnicity, an achievement that
got a lot of publicity back in her homeland.
In addition to her LPGA heroics, Choi also won once
on the KLPGA tour in 2011. She captured the Hanwha Classic in September,
beating, among others, US Women's Open winner So Yeon Ryu down the
stretch. By the end of the year, Choi was ranked #3 in the world,
her highest ranking ever, and the highest ranking at the time for
any Korean (next was Sun Ju Ahn at #6; Jiyai Shin had fallen from
#1 all the way to #7). Choi ended the year at the Swinging Skirts
Invitational in Taiwan, where she finished fourth behind Taiwanese
superstar Tseng, disappointing a surprisingly big group of Taiwanese
Na Yeon fans who followed her all week hoping to witness a win by
Na Yeon had a great season in 2012, highlighted
by her first ever Major win. She climbed back to second in the world
rankings, closer to Yani Tseng's #1 spot than she had been before.
The year started well, with a playoff loss at just her second event,
the HSBC Masters. She followed that with a second runner-up finish
at the RR Donnelly and a top ten at the Nabisco. The worst part
of her season came at the second Major of the year, when she failed
to sign her scorecard and was disqualified.
But Choi bounced back from that disappointment in
a big way at the next Major, the US Women's Open, which was held
at Blackwolf Run, the place where Se Ri Pak, in 1998, won the Open
and started the Korean golf explosion. There was nothing that Choi
wanted more than to win at that site, and that's exactly what happened.
She shot a majestic third round 65 that ranks among the greatest
rounds of golf a Korean has ever produced. It was an unbelievable
*12* shots better than the average that day. On the final day, an
unexpected triple bogey on the 10th hole momentarily put her win
in doubt. She followed that with a birdie and an amazing, gutsy
up and down from tall weeds on the 12th hole. Once her wayward tee
shot on the 13th bounced off the rocks and avoided the water, Choi
was set on the course that gave her the trophy. Se Ri herself was
there to douse Choi in water on the final green.
Choi played well much of the rest of the year, with
a third in Canada, a near miss loss to Inbee Park in Malaysia, and
a fifth at the Mizuno in Japan. Finally, at the year's last event,
the CME Group Titleholders, she waged a mano-a-mano battle with
Rookie of the Year So Yeon Ryu, coming out on top thanks to a superlative
approach on the 16th hole to set up the winning birdie. Choi's final
money list total of nearly $2 million was the second most money
ever earned by a Korean in a single season, and left her second
on the tour money list behind fellow Korean Inbee Park.
Choi finished her year by winning both her matches
at the Korea-Japan Team Championship and claiming the trophy at
the Swinging Skirts, a non-tour event in Taiwan. Bolstered by the
huge galleries cheering her on, Choi at last treated her Taiwanese
fans to a victory in their homeland. Alas, it came in a playoff
against a Taiwanese player, so there were some mixed emotions. But
for the Choi faithful, it was an unforgettable moment.
Choi came into the 2013 season as the second ranked
player in the world. With #1 Ya Ni Tseng's game in a freefall, there
had never been a better opportunity for Choi to grab the #1 spot
she had so long sought. But as it turned out, 2013 was one of Choi's
weaker seasons, and instead of moving up the rankings, she fell
all the way down to #7 by year's end.
She did not manage to win in 2013, her first winless
season on the LPGA since she broke through in 2009. In fact, most
years since then she had won at least twice. Choi did have two good
chances to get wins, but fell short to Stacy Lewis both times. At
the HSBC Champions, she was in contention much of Sunday but couldn't
seem to buy a putt when she needed one.
At the Ricoh British Women's Open, however, it seemed
like everything was going her way. Inbee Park, the winner of the
year's first three Majors, was struggling against the pressure to
win her fourth. Choi shot a magnificent second round 67 that was
almost as amazing as the third round 65 she had produced at the
US Women's Open when she won. During the 36 hole final day, she
climbed into the lead, and with six holes to play, she was three
shots ahead of anyone else. But at that point she started to struggle,
and when Stacy Lewis made two unlikely birdies to end her round,
she actually surged into the lead. Choi wound up tied for second
with Hee Young Park; her second best Major finish, but not the win
she was seeking.
In all, Choi finished with less than $1 million
in earnings for the season, 9th on the money list. She was 5th in
scoring average at 70.69, and had 8 top tens during the year.
Choi was winless in 2014 as well. She made less
than a million dollars for the second year in a row and had six
top tens. Her best performance came at the Canadian Pacific Women's
Open, where she nearly hunted down good friend So Yeon Ryu in the
final round but came up just short, finishing second. Choi also
was a member of the South Korean International Crown squad. She
and In Kyung Kim both struggled during the week, teaming up for
only one win; she also was thoroughly beaten by Carlotta Ciganda
in singles. Nonetheless, the week served to inspire her, and she
played better on the LPGA in the following weeks, at one point notching
three straight top-3 finishes. Choi also played in the Korea-Japan
Team event at the end of the year, but lost her one match.
After struggling to get back into the winner's circle
since 2012, it took Na Yeon all of one event in 2015 to get a win.
At the Coates Championship, she got into a heated battle with rookie
Ha Na Jang and second year star Lydia Ko for the title. But Choi
won it in the end for her 8th career win. She would win a second
trophy just a few months later in Arkansas. After a blistering second
round 63 to get into the hunt, NYC tried to track down local girl
Stacy Lewis for the title. On the 16th hole, still trailing, Choi
jarred an iron for an eagle to move into the lead. On the par 3
17th, she very nearly did it again, just missing an ace. The birdie
was enough to give her the win.
Although she had two wins in 2015, Choi struggled
with injuries much of the rest of the time and had just one other
top ten all year. She made $808K and finished 17th on the money
list. She is still within reach of an Olympic berth in 2016, and
will hope to be healthy to give it a good run.