Eun Jeong Seong of the Republic of Korea felt the intensified spotlight when she arrived at this week’s 68th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
She hears other competitors address her as the defending champion and she notices that sometimes her peers watch her hit balls on the practice tee.
Earlier this week, she also noticed college coaches – in town to evaluate top amateur players for their programs – watching her play.
So, how different is life for the Korean teen than when she played in her first USGA championship three years ago – failing to advance into match play at the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur?
“Now, yes, I feel the target on my back, but I’m OK,” said Seong, 16, who won Wednesday’s Round-of-64 match, 5 and 4, over Katherine Muzi, of Walnut, Calif. “It’s good pressure for me and I’m pretty comfortable with it.”
Seong seemed blissfully unaware of expectations when she opened on Monday with a score of 6-under-par 67 in Round 1 of stroke play. She followed that up with a 76 in Tuesday’s second round of stroke play to enter match play as the No. 3 seed with a 3-under total of 143.
“The first round is always good, but I had too many bad putts on Tuesday,” said Seong, currently No. 25 in the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking. “It’s about getting to match play.”
When asked if anything changes for her when match play starts, Seong smiled.
“I get excited, not scared,” she said. “It’s still hard, and I know I have to be mentally tough on every hole.”
Seong won three junior tournaments in Korea earlier this summer ahead of this week’s championship. She felt grooved and ready to play, knowing that as defending champion, she had nowhere to go but down if she’s unable to hold onto her title.
The teen also knew she had prepared well for another USGA championship, and her record at these events was as solid as anyone’s in the field, with a quarterfinal finish in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur, a runner-up finish in the 2014 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links, and last year’s win at the U.S. Girls’ Junior.
“I was comfortable when I came here,” said Seong.
But the teen was also self-critical of her play in Wednesday’s opening round against Muzi, in spite of her win.
“Today my play was so bad because I didn’t have any birdies and my putts were also bad,” she said. “She had five bogeys, so I just tried to relax.”
Seong points to iron play as the strength of her game, while noting that she wished her typical deft putting touch would lock into the pace of Ridgewood’s undulating and speedy greens.
“My putting touch is good, but Tuesday and [Wednesday], my putts were a little bit short and a little bit right,” she said. “Four holes have very hard slopes on the greens and I can’t control my wedges on these greens.
“But the course is beautiful,” she added.
While Seong has worked hard on every aspect of her game, she also has paid attention to other details of her performance that she hopes will benefit her someday.
When asked how she had improved her use of the English language, she said she “watches many LPGA interviews” on TV and on the Internet.
When asked which LPGA player she follows, she said fellow Korean Sei Young Kim, who has seven top 10s this year on the LPGA Tour, including two wins.
“Her face is happy every day and she seems comfortable,” said Seong. “I like to watch her play and her driver is very long.”
When asked how she stays physically fit, the athletic teen said she works with a coach back home in Korea, who has her running three times a week and training with elastic bands and an exercise physio ball.
Seong had no idea where some of the colleges were when the coaches showed up to watch her play early in the week, but she was intrigued that so many came out to watch amateurs compete.
“I don’t know the coaches, I don’t know the colleges, and I don’t think the coaches know me, but they said hello,” she said. “Yes, I’m interested in college golf and some coaches might want to pick me..”
One thing she does know is that when she’s old enough, she hopes to qualify for the LPGA Tour.
“That’s why I came here to the United States to play USGA and AJGA events,” said Seong, who, according to driving laws in Korea, won’t be able to drive a car until next October after her birthday.
Until that time comes, Seong is zeroed in on what she came here to do this week at the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
“Sometimes I make mistakes, but I know my focus has to be on every shot this week,” she said. “And I want to win this championship one more time.”
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.