PITTSFORD, N.Y. -- Unlike the PGA Tour, the LPGA is in the enviable position of having a clear No. 1 player in Yani Tseng, who has a vintage Tiger Woods-like lead over the second-best player in women's golf. But what most fans don't realize is that No. 2 is Na Yeon Choi, a 24-year-old Korean who is as consistent as the ticking of a clock, with a repeating swing that is just as reliable.
Choi knows all about being second to Tseng. In 2008, she was runner-up to Yani for the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year Award. And with five LPGA wins since then, Na Yeon has the most triumphs on tour in that time period than any player other than Tseng.
Na Yeon, who was 10 years old when she watched on TV as Se Ri Pak won the 1998 U.S. Women's Open, the first LPGA major won by a player from their homeland, is looking for her first major. On Thursday, she got off to a good start, firing a two-under-par 69 at Locust Hill CC in the first round of the Wegmans LPGA Championship.
Na Yeon has yet to win this year, but has been second twice and picks up a check every time out, currently sitting at No. 6 on the money list this year and having amassed $6 million in career earnings.
"I think it was almost a perfect game today," Choi said despite hitting only nine of 14 fairways and 10 greens. But her wonderfully-rhythmic putting stroke was needed only 25 times, and that's the kind of effort on the greens that turns over-par play into an under-par round.
"I had really good patience out there," Choi said, calling attention to one of her strongest attributes.
"When I hit the driver straight, I think I can make a couple more birdies if I do not have to play from the rough [so much]," Choi said about Locust Hill's much more penalizing rough that makes it clear no one is going to go as low as Tseng did in winning here last year and Cristie Kerr did the year before, the first year the LPGA Championship was played as the Wegmans.
"I am going to the range and work on hitting my driver straight," Choi said. "I feel great and I have a lot of confidence."
Na Yeon also likes the fact that she has been flying under the radar, with all the attention on Tseng for the last couple of years and now some of the spotlight shining on Stacy Lewis, who has won twice in 2012 to climb all the way to No. 3 in the Rolex Rankings.
"I like chasing somebody rather than leading," Choi said about being in the shadow of first Tseng and now Lewis. "Chasing, I can play aggressive. Yani and Stacy are playing so great. I just try to do my best every week."
Choi, like Tseng, is a student of VISION54, the peak-performance
approach to golf taught by coaches Lynn Marriott and Pia Nilsson. A key
element of that method is to have the discipline to perform the mental
triage that frees players from wasting energy on meaningless concerns.
"I like to practice hard and practice long and remind myself what is
under my control," Choi said. "I can't control score and I can't control
weather," she said, focusing instead on those elements of the game that
lead to good scores like balance, tempo and commitment to each shot.
Choi, who was born in Seoul but lives now in Orlando, was second last
year -- to Tseng, of course -- in the race for the Vare Trophy with a
scoring average of 70.53, making 20 of 21 cuts. In 2010, she led the
LPGA with $1.8 millions in winnings and won the Vare with an average of
Consistency is the strongest part of Choi's game. She is moderately long at 258 yards per drive, No. 42 on tour, hits 75 percent of her fairways, No. 27, and 72 percent of the greens, No. 8. Na Yeon is fifth in putts per greens in regulation and 20th in overall putting, which translate to the third-best scoring average on tour at 70.48 coming into Wegmans.
Right now, Choi is content being the best player in women's golf that no one has heard of. But if she should win here this week, that might change. Of the eight Koreans who have won LPGA majors, only Pak with five has more than one title. Choi has the ability to join Se Ri as a multiple major winner -- and Thursday she positioned herself well for No. 1.-- Ron Sirak
(Photo by Hunter Martin/Getty Images)