May 4, 2008

Somethin' Bruin

UCLA junior Tiffany Joh is the queen of downplay, but as the NCAA postseason gets under way there's no understating her abundant talent

It is not a stretch to say Joh's scoring average (72.0) places her in elite company.

It is not a stretch to say Joh's scoring average (72.0) places her in elite company.

There are things Tiffany Joh will try to have you believe if you let the 21-year-old UCLA junior bend your ear. Like how she's the worst college golfer in the country.

OK, maybe not the worst, but definitely not as good as Amanda Blumenherst at Duke or Stacy Lewis at Arkansas or even fellow Bruin Maria Jose Uribe, the U.S. Women's Amateur champion. I mean come on, don't you know how awesome they are and how Joh is "just lucky to get the ball off the ground" some days?

When the conversation ends, though, do yourself a favor. Check out the UCLA women's golf website. You will find Joh actually has a tidy 72.0 average in nine tournaments this season, seven top-eight finishes and nothing worse than a T-13. You'll also learn the San Diego native was just named Pac-10 player of the year and is on the U.S. Curtis Cup team competing at St. Andrews later this month.

After that, you can talk to Joh's college coach, Carrie Forsyth, to clarify this getting-the-ball-airborne problem. "Her ball striking has always been exceptional," contends the nine-year Bruin skipper and former national coach of the year. "She's one of the best collegiate ball-strikers I've ever seen."

According to Derek Uyeda, a teaching professional at San Diego's Stadium Golf Center and Joh's instructor since high school, her swing actually is the model he uses for every player he instructs, male or female. "She will never say this," Uyeda explains, "but she has complete control of her golf ball."

The fact is, no one who follows the college game would be surprised to see Joh contend at this week's NCAA Central Regional in Texas. And if third-ranked UCLA advances, as expected, to the NCAA Championship at the University of New Mexico GC in Albuquerque in two weeks, the same will be true there.

So what's with all the humility?

"That's just Tiff," Uyeda says. "I think it's something to lull her competitors to sleep. She doesn't want you to know that she practices hard, that she grinds out there, that she really cares."

When Joh is on the range with Uyeda, he says he sometimes has her rate her shots. "I'm looking at the ball flight and they're just pure and she's doing it over and over again," Uyeda says. "But she'll never say, 'That was perfect.' Not even to me."

"I don't think it's modesty," Joh insists. "It's a fact that any given person out there isn't going to hit it great all the time. I'm the same way."

If Joh is college golf's version of the girl who cried wolf, she is also the most likable liar you will ever meet. Finding a college golfer more friendly or personable than the 5-foot-5 dynamo is a struggle. "She's the funniest person I've ever met in my life," says Blumenherst, who has known Joh since their junior golf days.

"I'm just a dork," Joh says, "kind of loud and obnoxious, really."

Indeed, the self-deprecation extends off the course, too, as Joh claims to have no talents. Never mind she can speak multiple languages (including sign), is a skilled pianist and regularly appears on the UCLA honor roll.

Unlike many Korean-American girls who play golf in Southern California, Joh wasn't steered toward the game by her family. Her parents -- Dad is a financial accounting professor at San Diego State, Mom runs a tutoring program -- and older brother had no interest in the sport. But the Johs' backyard faced the CC of Rancho Bernardo, which prompted a curious Tiffany to often wander on the course (to the chagrin of the course marshals) before finally trying the game at age 12.

Naturally, Joh says she was horrible at first ("Squirrels ran away from me out of fear," she claims). Somehow she got the hang of it, though, winning four AJGA tournaments before heading to UCLA in the fall of 2005. Once there, she focused on the plague of many great ball-strikers: a suspect short game. "You hit it close all the time and you're putting often for birdies and when you don't make them, the confidence can go," Forsyth says.

The work Joh put in on her chipping and putting has paid off. After posting only nine sub-par rounds as a freshman, she had 14 as a sophomore en route to becoming a first-team All-American. Thus far in 2007-08, she has 12.

If Joh exaggerates about her lack of ability, rarely mentioning the 2006 U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links title she has on her résumé, the same can't be said about her knack for finding herself in some embarrassing situations. There actually are several entertaining Joh stories that have become part of college golf folklore, some Joh, a communications major, has helped spread by writing about them on an Internet blog.

Like the time in the college event where she didn't notice until she was on the first tee that her skort was on backward. ("Had to go find a bush real quick," she says.) Or when she qualified for the LPGA's Safeway Classic last August and saw Nancy Lopez in the locker room. Joh was so star-struck, she literally walked into a wall as Lopez passed by. ("I'm not very good at multitasking.")

Then there was the one from last year's Pac-10 Championship: The night before the team was to leave for the tournament, Joh realized she had forgotten to pick up her golf clothes at the dry cleaners. The store was closed the next day, so Joh decided to spend the entire night outside the place in her Honda CRV, hoping the owner might appear anyway. "Sure enough he got there at about 5:30 a.m.," she recalls. "I had left about 20 messages on the store phone. He came out with my stuff and said 'Don't do that again.' " (For the record, Joh won the tournament.)

While providing some comic relief for her teammates, Joh has become more than just a class clown. With no seniors on the roster, she has helped acclimate the younger players into college life. Moreover, Forsyth is encouraged that Joh is starting to pat herself on the back, if only occasionally.

"All humor aside, if you've spent the majority of your career viewing yourself as not as good, sometimes you start to believe the things you say," Forsyth says. "We've emphasized it's important to appreciate the abilities of others but not to minimize your own abilities."

"I think I'm a little more comfortable in my own skin," says Joh. Still, ask her about her chances of victory in the NCAA postseason, and she falls back into her old habits. "Winning? I haven't even thought about winning," Joh says.

Before she can utter another word, Joh is told to knock it off if she's about to finish her thought by saying she's not good enough. "OK," she laughs. "Then I just don't want to embarrass myself."

Fair enough.