NAPLES, Fla. – The Americans owned Friday at the CME Group Titleholders, but Sunday belonged to the South Koreans.
While American Stacy Lewis was the star of a momentous Rolex Awards Celebration as the LPGA’s player of the year in a dinner halfway through the event, Na Yeon Choi led a final round that was all about the dynamic young talent South Korea keeps delivering in the women’s game.
Choi won what turned into a duel with fellow South Korean and Rolex Rookie of the Year So Yeon Ryu. Choi did so on a day when fellow countrywoman Inbee Park wrapped up the LPGA money title and Vare Trophy for low scoring average.
Closing with a 2-under-par 70 at TwinEagles Club to claim her seventh LPGA title, Choi finished two shots better than Ryu (70), three better than Brittany Lincicome (70) and four better than Karrie Webb (69).
It was the eighth LPGA title won by South Koreans this year, notable in that it equals the American total as most by a nation on the tour this season.
With Sunday’s $500,000 first-place check, Choi claimed the two largest winner’s checks on the tour this year. She also took home $585,000 winning the U.S. Women’s Open, her first major.
The big payday had special meaning with Choi in the midst of house hunting in the Orlando area, where she makes her American base.
Choi’s mother, Jeong Me Song, made the trip from South Korea this week to help Na Yeon look at houses this coming Monday. Choi is looking to move out of her current home in the area to a home near Isleworth, where she’s hoping to become a member of the country club.
“I think I can buy a bigger house than I thought,” Choi said.
Sunday marked the first time Choi’s mother saw her daughter win outside South Korea.
“I think she is proud of me,” Choi said.
Choi was eloquent and charming telling her story afterward in English. She sent a jolt of laughter through the media center saying she got nervous because she couldn’t locate her mother in the gallery as they played. She wondered if her mother was following the wrong group.
“I couldn’t find her,” Choi cracked.
Choi’s parents watched the U.S. Women’s Open victory on television in South Korea.
“When I won the U.S. Women’s Open, I really missed my parents,” Choi said.
Mama’s home cooking might have helped Choi close out the victory. She said her mother cooked Galbi, Korean barbecue, for dinner on the eve of the final round. Her mom cooked kimchi, Korean cabbage, just about every night in Naples.
“Whenever I hit my driver far, my caddie always says, `That’s the kimchi power’” Choi said.
Choi’s caddie is Jason Hamilton, former caddie to world No. 1 Yani Tseng. Sunday was their first LPGA title together.
Choi showed the same resilience winning the CME Group Titleholders as she showed winning the U.S. Women’s Open in July.
Trying to protect her 54-hole lead at TwinEagles, Choi made a big mistake in the final round, just as she did at Blackwolf Run. Choi made a mess of the third hole Sunday in Naples, making double bogey after watching a chip roll back to her feet.
The mistake dropped Choi a shot behind Ryu.
“Leading the tournament, there is always extra pressure,” Choi said. “At that moment, I felt more comfortable than when I was leading. Maybe it sounds weird, but I like chasing somebody; then I can play more aggressively.”
Choi backed that sentiment up two holes after the double bogey.
She made eagle to move back in command.
Choi striped a 3-wood to 9 feet at the fifth and made the putt.
“Na Yeon is a really, really great player,” Ryu said. “Today, she was playing really good, especially her putting today was really great.”
Choi put a scare into her fans in the final round of the U.S. Women’s Open when she hit her tee shot into the woods starting the back nine and made triple bogey. She bounced back with a birdie at the next hole and never wavered again closing out the major.
“I feel really great and satisfied not just about how I played today, but about this season,” Choi said.
With Park, Ryu and Jiyai Shin all showing terrific form this year, it says something that Choi might be the best South Korean in the game today. Choi entered the week No. 4 in the Rolex World Rankings and is now poised to move back over No. 3 Park as the highest-ranked South Korean.