Kohler, Wis. – Na Yeon Choi found that the toughest part of her day at the U.S. Women’s Open was talking to the media.
She sure didn’t struggle much on the golf course.
With an eye-popping 7-under-par 65, the low round of the championship, Choi seized control of the 67th Women’s Open Saturday. At 8-under 208, she enters the final round at Blackwolf Run with a six-stroke lead over her nearest competitor, Amy Yang. Only three other players are under par, seven behind.
Choi’s uncanny performance amid a breeze that swirled to up to 25 miles per hour was one of the more impressive in the annals of the championship. The 24-year-old from Korea became the 11th player to shoot 65. Only four rounds have ever been lower.
But the truly remarkable facet of her round, which included one bogey against eight birdies, is that Yang’s 69 was the next-lowest score and only three other players broke par, all with 71. The field scoring average for the day was 76.9, so she beat her peers collectively by almost a dozen shots.
“I had birdie on first hole and birdie on second hole, and then I got good vibes from there, good confidence,” said Choi, a five-time LPGA Tour winner. “It was really fun out there. I couldn't believe how I got eight birdies today, but I did. And I'm very happy, and I'm very satisfied and I'm very excited.”
Choi might have come out of the pack Saturday, but she has often risen above it. In 2010 she was the LPGA’s leading money winner and also collected the Vare Trophy for the season’s lowest stroke average of 69.8. Earlier this year she was ranked as high as No. 2 in the world.
A victory Sunday not only would represent her first major title and first victory of the season, it would also erase the memory of an embarrassing conclusion to the Wegman’s LPGA Championship, the season’s second major. Choi was disqualified after forgetting to sign her final-round scorecard. She left $28,638 on the table for what would have been a tie for 19th place.
“I tried to forget that,” she said.
She won’t soon forget her round at Blackwolf Run, which included hitting 15 greens in regulation and 26 putts. She started the day with a wedge to 3 feet and proceeded to set up four more of her birdies from 4 feet or less. Her only miscue came at the par-3 13th.
“All my 14 clubs worked very well today,” Choi said.
“I’m blown away by what Na Yeon did out there. It was impressive,” said Ben Kimball, director of the U.S. Women's Open for the USGA, who is responsible for the daily setup of the course. “I’d like to go shake her hand because to shoot 65 and to beat the rest of the field by several shots, I think she has gone a long way towards identifying herself as the best player in the championship.”
That’s true, considering that the largest final-round comeback in championship history is five strokes.
“It was tough out there. It was pretty crazy, that 65 today. Good for her. But I think tomorrow we’ll see what happens,” said Michelle Wie, whose 66 on Friday stood as the course record for one day.
“Na Yeon beat the field by like 12 shots today, and that's pretty remarkable,” 2007 champion Cristie Kerr said. “I wouldn't expect her to do the same thing tomorrow statistically. So maybe I can pull out a low round. There’s been one low round every day.”
Like many of the more accomplished Korean players, Choi was influenced by compatriot Se Ri Pak, who won back-to-back majors in 1998, the second in the U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run.
Interestingly, Choi went up against Pak in a Korean event and came out on top. That was a big moment in her career.
“I think it was like almost eight years ago, when I was 16, 17 years old,” Choi said. “Yeah, I played KLPGA player as an amateur, and she was playing there, and yeah, I won the tournament. That's why I turned pro in Korea. All of my friends, all the golfers in Korea, we called the legend to Se Ri. I mean I really appreciate what she did on the LPGA Tour. No way we come here without her.”
Before that day, Choi remembers watching a tape of the 1998 championship repeatedly. That, too, was a life-changing experience.
“I can't remember exactly where I was, but I remember that feeling,” she recalled. “That was very big boost of all the Korean people. So I was only 9 years old and maybe I can shoot like 90 score or something like that, but I remember that feeling. So really I want to keep continue that feeling and I want to give to all the Korean people what Se Ri did 14 years ago.
“After she won, I think all the Korean people or even a lot of players has bigger dream than before. And even me, just dream was professional golfer on KLPGA Tour. But after she won and even Grace Park or Mi Hyun Kim, when they did that, I changed my goal. So they encouraged all the Korean players, and we have bigger dreams because of them.”
The biggest dream in women’s golf is now very much within her reach.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.