FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Playing competitive golf is tough enough for a 15-year old. But it’s even harder when you’re also the daughter of an Olympic gold medalist.
The only player in this week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at Forest Highlands who knows how that feels is Binny Lee, of Frisco, Texas.
Her mother, Nan Yool Choo, represented the Republic ofKorea at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, when Taekwondo was a demonstration sport (it received official Olympic sport status 12 years later).
Competing in the flyweight division (94-103 lbs.), Lee’s mother won three matches to capture the gold as a 16-year old. She earned a degree in Taekwondo from Korea National University and was a three-time Korean National Champion. Binny Lee’s father, Sangjin Lee, is a fifth-degree black belt and was also a Korean National Champion. The couple own and operate the White Tiger Martial Arts in the Dallas suburb of Little Elm, Texas.
“Last year I did so bad for a while and I was in a slump,” said Lee, who posted rounds of 75-75 on the Meadow Course and then qualified for match play in an 11-for-8 playoff. “At that time my dad (Sangjin Lee) was like, your mom’s a gold medal winner, what would people think of that? I did get a lot of pressure but my mom helps me a lot.”
There’s also a cultural emphasis that Lee has to deal with. “In Korea they work so hard that you have to choose either sports or study,” she said. “If it’s sports you don’t have to go to school. So once I got into golf I started home-schooling four hours a day. It only took my mom three years to win a gold medal, so that was a lot of hard work. I think she did double the practice time I do now. But golf is so much harder.”
Despite starting Taekwondo at age 4 and earning a first-degree black belt while being coached by her parents, Lee felt it wasn’t the sport for her. Especially when golf came along.
“When I was little I wasn’t really focused so I would take a break from it (Taekwondo) and then go back. That’s why I didn’t get my black belt until I was 12. But that’s also when golf just took over everything for me.”
Despite their background, Lee’s parents supported the choice.
“With Taekwondo you don’t really get to make a living unless you have your own studio, so they weren’t disappointed in my decision,” she said. “The only reward is the Olympics. Golf is so much bigger and they are happier with me playing that.”
In fact, she credits her father for introducing her to the game.
“In Korea a lot of parents make their kids do certain things,” she said. “It’s part of the culture and they just want a better future for them. So my dad, who played a little bit, made me start playing golf. At first I didn’t like at all but once I started playing in tournaments I enjoyed it.”
Now, after her home-school lessons, she spends between six and eight hours a day practicing, often at Frisco Lakes Golf Club near her home. The work is beginning to pay off.
She has three second-place finishes in American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) tournaments this year and is into match play at the Girls’ Junior.
“I think from last year to now I have improved, but I know I can do better,” she said.
Lee will play in the PGA Junior Championship in Bryan, Texas next week and then will compete in the U.S. Women’s Amateur the following week at Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, N.Y.
She is also setting an example for her 6-year old sister Junny who is trying to learn the game.
“She’s a lefty because she has watched me play growing up and tries to mirror my swing,” she said. “But she doesn’t listen to me when I try to help her. She’ll go to the range, hit two balls and say she’s tired.”
While Lee once saw a YouTube video of her mom competing in the Olympics, she knows that after suffering a serious jaw injury while fighting during a tournament, she was forced to give up the sport.
“She always says to me if something happens to you don’t give up, because she did after the Olympics. And she regrets doing that.”
As for her mother’s gold medal, she never got a chance to see it — the prized possession was stolen from her grandmother’s house in Korea right after the 1988 Olympics.
While Lee confirms that her mother has another version of the medal, she won’t divulge its whereabouts.
“The location of that one is kept secret,” she laughed.
Tom Mackin is an Arizona-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.