After winning the U.S. Women’s Open last year, Na Yeon Choi had a bit of a problem at the airport in Chicago on her way home to her native South Korea.
With a large and cumbersome box carrying her Open trophy in tow, Choi was questioned by an airport security guard, who made her open the box and show him what was inside before she was allowed to board the plane.
“He didn’t believe that I won the U.S. Open,” Choi said, when sharing the story with the reporters and photographers gathered at Sebonack Golf Course in Southampton on Monday for Media Day for this year’s Open. “I had to open the box for him, and then he believed me.”
Choi’s name and face are recognizable only to the most devout fans of women’s professional golf—but that’s something the 25-year-old South Korean-born player has been working hard to change in recent years.
She took a big step in that direction when she won her first major last year, claiming the Open championship at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin. Choi won based largely on her exceptional performance in the third round, where she shot a course record 7-under 65, which was the third-lowest single-round score in U.S. Women’s Open history.
It was a moment she said she’ll never forget, particularly because her childhood idol, fellow Korean Se-Ri Pak, was there to congratulate her. Pak won the Open in 1998 after a 20-hole playoff, and she is considered the pioneer in the explosion of successful Korean players on the LPGA Tour.
Choi visited the East End on Sunday and Monday to get in some practice at Sebonack, which is hosting this year’s Open Championship the week of June 24 to 30. On Sunday, she braved rainy and damp conditions to get the lay of the land and give herself her best chance to defend the title she won last year.
On Monday, she was the featured guest for Media Day, taking time to talk to reporters before hopping in a car and heading to JFK Airport to catch a flight to the Bahamas, where she will play in the inaugural Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic on Paradise Island May 23 to 26.
On Monday, Choi spoke not only about her development as a player but also as a young adult trying to navigate the career of a professional athlete while also learning a new language and how to live on her own in a foreign country. She spoke candidly about the challenges she faced, including the complicated process of asserting her independence from her parents, who had initially lived with her in the States before moving back to South Korea, at Choi’s urging.
Striking out on her own at a young age wasn’t easy, Choi said, but she’s glad she did it. A major part of her motivation to do so, she said, was to create a link to the American fans. Choi is not content to coast on any fame she might have in her own country—it’s important to her to gain notoriety in the States as well. To that end, she hired an English tutor who traveled with her all of last year, and it has paid off—Choi’s English, while not perfect, is well within the fluent range. In addition to having a tutor, Choi said she also watches a lot of American TV—“Glee” and “24” are her favorites—to try and pick up slang and other cultural turns-of-phrase.
“When I first came here, I didn’t speak English and it was scary to play,” she said. “After 2010, I felt that I needed to speak English better. I wanted to give to people my true feelings, and have more of a connection with the fans.”
That choice came around the same time that Choi made the difficult move of asking her parents to let her live alone in the States. “At that moment, my dad was mad, and I was crying too,” Choi said. “But I’ve learned so many things.”
Choi, who lives in Orlando, Florida, said she spent a lot of time with friend and fellow Tour player Song-Hee Kim, and the pair had an experience not unlike that of any 20-somethings experiencing independence from their parents while taking on real-world responsibilities for the first time. “It was fun,” Choi said. “When we left the course, we’d forget about golf and go shopping or see a movie. We had a great time.”
Choi says she has not regretted her decision to assert her independence, but she did not deny that her parents had a great influence in her development as one of the world’s best golfers. Her father had a dream of being a professional golfer, she said, one that did not pan out, but Choi said she’s proud that she was able to fulfill that dream herself.
If she can successfully defend her title at Sebonack at the end of June, she’ll further cement her place among the game’s elite.
And maybe have an easier time getting through airport security too.