A decade before Se Ri Pak’s seminal moment for Korean golf at the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open, a Korean-born player who had become a naturalized American citizen produced a historic USGA championship season. In 1988, Pearl Sinn (now Bonanni) became the first female to win multiple USGA titles in the same calendar year. She claimed the 1988 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links with a 2-and-1 win over Tami Jo Henningsen at Page Belcher Golf Course in Tulsa, Okla., and followed that up two months later by winning the U.S. Women’s Amateur at the Minikahda Club in Minneapolis with a 6-and-5 triumph over Karen Noble. Sinn, who lived in Bellflower, Calif., and was an All-American at Arizona State University, also helped the USA to victory at the 1988 Women’s World Amateur Team Championship and went 1-1-0 as a member of the losing 1988 Curtis Cup Team. A year later, Sinn successfully defended her WAPL title with a 2-and-1 win over Kelli Akers at Indian Canyon Golf Course in Spokane, Wash. She turned pro that year and competed professionally for the next 17 years, including 15 on the LPGA Tour, where she claimed the 1998 State Farm Rail Classic for her lone victory. Now married to Greg Bonanni with two children (Madeline, 10, and Marcus, 7), Sinn, 46, continues to stay involved with the game. She is in her fifth season as the head women’s golf coach at Cal State Fullerton and serves on the boards for Urban Youth Junior Golf and Los Angeles Junior Golf.
How tough was it to win two USGA titles in the same year?
I was a young 20-year-old and I played every championship to win, and it was just one of those years where everything was going right. I just had a great year. I felt every time I had a club in my hand, I was going to hit a good shot.
But isn’t winning that many matches difficult?
When they say the better you are, the luckier you are … I felt like that was happening to me. For instance, when I defended my Public Links [title] after winning the Amateur, I remember playing my college teammate, Michelle Estill, in the semifinals. I was 1 down going into the last hole. She hit her shot under a tree. She took a practice swing and a branch had fallen down. I saw it, but she was my teammate so I wasn’t really thinking about [the infraction]. Our walking official called the penalty. She ended up losing that hole and we go into a playoff. I think she was rattled from the ruling and I wound up winning the first playoff hole. I don’t even remember who I beat in the final, because that match was so crucial.
In the [1988 Women’s Amateur], I played against Kelly Robbins in the semifinals, and it was a real battle. We went extra holes (20). It was the same thing. I wasn’t really a long hitter, but I kept plugging. And she just started missing shots. I had played so much golf and played so much match play that it got to a point where I just understood … the person who wins is someone who just plugs along.
In 1987, you had lost in the WAPL final to Tracy Kerdyk. Did you have extra motivation when you returned to the WAPL in 1988?
That was a heartbreaker, but I was only a sophomore in college. It didn’t really bother me. It was the first USGA championship where I played really well. Tracy really outplayed me there. When I got to Tulsa, I told myself I was just in the finals last year, I know I can do this.
As a native Korean, you have seen the explosion of great golfers from your home country. What are your recollections of Korean golf?
It was just getting off the ground. My dad played when we lived in Korea. He belonged to two country clubs and he would go out and play golf all the time. He was addicted to the game. And on the weekends, he would take us with him to the club. In Korea, we didn’t have a lot of open space, so my dad would load up our bicycles to take my mom and sister with me to the course and he would go out and play with his buddies. There wasn’t anyone out there playing, so we would literally ride our bikes down the middle of the fairway. And nobody knew we were on the golf course. There wasn’t a lot of access for people who wanted to play golf.
How did you get started in golf?
When we came to the U.S. [at age 8], I didn’t speak the language. But my parents happened to move across the street from a public golf course and my dad cut down some clubs for us and said, “Go play.” It was a way of spending our time without having to talk to anybody. But through golf, I met a lot of neat people and I met a lot of other kids who were playing golf at that time. Basically, that’s how my sister and I learned to speak English. We learned golf lingo before we learned anything else. The golf course became our second home.
Are you amazed at all the Koreans now playing the game?
I think I was the first Korean to play college golf. There were not any other Koreans playing college golf at that time. It’s amazing. I’ve lived here nearly all my life. I’m Korean, but I didn’t see the boom first-hand. The game just fits the Koreans really well. I was successful because I knew I had to be really steady. My mind happened to be really good. I think that’s how Koreans are. They don’t get rattled by too many things. They are calm and get their job done. That’s why they are successful in women’s golf.
After such a remarkable amateur career, do you often wonder why you didn’t win more as a professional?
I had a couple of really great years leading up to the [LPGA] Tour. I think I started to take it a bit easier than I needed to. I think I took a lot of it for granted. Nevertheless, I had a lot of great times and met a lot of great people.
Did you ever envision yourself coaching in college?
I never thought I would be a teacher of the game. I just always played it. At this level, it’s really cool because I have a couple of players who I recruited that have some potential. They haven’t quite developed their games all the way, but it’s really neat to share my experiences. You learn a lot about yourself in hindsight. I get to share a lot of my experiences, and not only the good parts. I can talk about the mistakes I have made. I talked to my college coach (Linda Vollstedt) when I first started [coaching]. I remember apologizing to her for what I put her through as a college player. The college experience for these kids is amazing.
Do any of your players know about your exploits as an amateur?
I think some of them do. In the fall I took our team to a golf tournament hosted by the University of Minnesota at the Minikahda Club, where I won my Women’s Amateur. We had a great reception from the president of the club and I mentioned my name. They had my picture up in the card room, and they had a replica of the trophy. I think it hit my players when they saw that.
It seems that many of today’s golfers don’t have a good grasp of history. Have you noticed this?
As I got older on the LPGA Tour, new players would come up and they didn’t have the perspective on the history of the game. I remember hitting golf balls on the driving range next to [eight-time USGA champion] JoAnne Carner, who was a great mentor to me when I first got on tour. And this Korean girl came up and tried to make some space in between us. JoAnne left to go to tee it up and this girl comes to me and says: “Why does this old lady still play golf? Who is she?” I was like, “Are you kidding me?” I told her to go introduce herself and gave her the whole history. In our era, that’s who we grew up with. I remember coming out on tour and seeing Nancy Lopez for the first time and was so shocked and in awe. It was the same thing with Beth Daniel. That’s why the game has progressed so fast from where it was with these kids, because they have no idea who they are competing against.
Are you saddened by the WAPL being retired?
I don’t know what it’s like now, but back then we were public-course players and we had a little chip on our shoulder. That made us a lot more competitive.
Do you still think about your accomplishments 25 years later?
I’ve been raised to always be pretty humble, so I don’t often think about it. My daughter is 10 years old now, and that’s when I started. I keep begging her to play golf, but she doesn’t want any part of it. I don’t play much anymore and I don’t have a lot of golf stuff around the house, because I don’t play professionally anymore. She wants to be more of a normal kid and play soccer with her friends. But in that perspective, the more I think about it, if she could go down the road I went down and live that life, it’s such a cool life, it would be really neat. That’s the only time I think about what I’ve done as an amateur.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.