In Gee Chun sealed the deal Sunday winning the Evian Championship.
It’s officially the “Year of the Smile” in women’s golf.
If Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko leads the LPGA in smiles, Chun is a close second with Ariya Jutanugarn not far behind.
In fact, Jutanugarn may have become the first player to turn a smile into a practical device this year. She integrated a smile into her pre-shot routine back in April. She didn’t begin her tour best run of five victories this season until she began using a smile as a trigger to remind her to slow down and be confident before stepping over a shot.
Chun had more to smile about winning the Evian Championship Sunday than any player who ever teed it up in a major. She went lower over 72 holes in a major than any man or woman in history. With a dramatic par save at the last, Chun shot 69, posting a four-day total of 21 under, the lowest total in relation to par in major championship golf.
“I can’t believe I won the Evian Championship at 21 under,” Chun said. “I’m not dreaming, right?”
Chun finished a shot better than the 20-under total Henrik Stenson posted winning The Open Championship at Royal Troon this summer and a shot better than Jason Day posted winning the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits last year.
Chun’s total was two better than the women’s record shared by Dottie Pepper (1999 Kraft Nabisco), Karen Stupples (2004 Women’s British Open), Cristie Kerr (2010 LPGA Championship), Yani Tseng (2011 LPGA Championship) and Inbee Park (2015 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship).
Chun’s smile is apparently as integral to her game as it is to Jutanugarn’s.
“It’s the most important part of In Gee’s game,” Dr. Won Park, Chun’s coach, told GolfChannel.com.
It’s a strong statement, given Park has helped Chun build one of the most elegant swings in the women’s game.
Park says Chun’s pre-shot routine is built on the idea of “flow,” of creating positive flow through her game. Her smile after shots, after plucking her ball from the cup and while acknowledging fans, is an integral part of that flow.
“She has learned to enjoy the game whether she is playing well or playing badly,” Park said. “I try to teach that to every player of mine, but they don’t all pick it up. In Gee does.”
There’s another benefit to Chun’s smile. It has helped her connect to fans in meaningful ways.
She is one of the most popular players in South Korea. She goes by the nickname “Dumbo,” a moniker she says she gained because of her natural curiosity, “like the baby elephant.” Her fan club is called “The Flying Dumbos,” which is spreading to the United States.
Chun is working hard to connect to American fans.
Park told GolfChannel.com that Chun began carrying a pair of small books in her back pockets during rounds after she came to the United States to play full time this year. She carried a yardage book in one pocket and an English-Korean translation book in the other pocket.
“So she could practice her English between shots,” Park said.
Chun has started combining the books, moving her English notes into the back of her yardage book. Park said you can sometimes see Chun appear to be talking to herself when she’s walking between shots.
“She’s practicing her English,” Park said.
After Chun won the U.S. Women’s Open last year, Park was her translator when she met media in her news conference. When Chun arrived for the ANA Inspiration for her first major as an LPGA member this year, Park encouraged her to do as many interviews as she could in English. He helped her here and there.
After winning Sunday at Evian, Chun did her NBC TV interview herself, completely in English.
“Most people say golf is an individual sport, but I believe it is a team sport,” Chun told NBC and Golf Channel’s Tom Abbott while cradling her new trophy. “My manager, my caddie, my coach, my family ... I have a team, and we prepare for this game and play this game together. I love my team.”
Chun’s smile is proving a universal language.
“I think she's an amazing ambassador for the women's game,” said Rolex world No. 1 Lydia Ko, who was there on the 18th green to help douse Chun in a champagne-soaked victory celebration. “You can see that from her personality. She's always smiling, and she's there for other people. I think that's why everybody really likes her. You can see that by the many of us that came out to support her and celebrate and spray champagne and water on her.”
With Sunday’s victory, Chun joins South Korean legend Se Ri Pak as the only players to win major championships as their first two LPGA victories.
With Chun’s triumph coming on the heels of Inbee Park’s gold medal win, there’s immense pride back in South Korea. Chun helped the Koreans avoid a shutout in this year’s majors. They’ve now won a major in each of the last six years. They’ve won 11 of the last 22 majors played.
“This is going to be huge for Korean fans,” So Yeon Ryu said.
After winning Sunday, Chun revealed she smiled through some emotional pain at year’s start. A controversial mishap at the Singapore airport before the HSBC Women’s Champions in March was harder on Chun than she acknowledged publicly.
Back in the spring, Chun was injured when fellow South Korean star Ha Na Jang’s father lost control of a 15-pound travel bag, sending it bouncing down an escalator. It struck Chun in the lower back. She missed a month recovering from injuries to her pelvis, sacroiliac joint and lumbar muscles. The media furor the mishap created in South Korea, pitting her against Jang, troubled her more than she acknowledged at the time.
Chun withdrew from the HSBC Women’s Champions, the JTBC Founders Cup and Kia Classic while recovering from injury. All the while, the controversy simmered between Chun and Jang fans.
“It was an inner struggle,” Chun said Sunday. “I just had to keep it quiet inside, but I had to go through all those hard times, not being able to mention anything about my injury and my hurt and pain.”
Chun was paired with Jang in the first two rounds of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship in June. She said the pairing was stressful, but it actually “led to healing” between her and Jang. “It was nobody’s fault, just by mistake, everything’s cool,” Chun said.
Chun’s smile said everything’s more than cool now in Chun’s world. It’s historically excellent.