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Beyond player-caddie relationship, Sungjae Im, Albin Choi bonded in grief and trust

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The scene at the Honda Classic was unfolding just as Albin Choi had always dreamed.

The macho birdies down the stretch. The congratulatory hugs. The media blitz. The champagne toast in the locker room.

At last, he was a PGA Tour-winning ...

Caddie? And translator?

“I got to see and experience everything that goes along with winning,” Choi says. “It was like being there without actually being there.”

Satisfying, yet bittersweet, because if you ask any of his peers a decade ago, that could have – and maybe even should have – been Choi, 28, who was one of the best college players of the early 2010s. But haunted for years by a personal tragedy, Choi hasn’t made the final leap from the minor leagues to the majors, playing five full seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour before losing his card last year.

Stuck at a career crossroads and in financial straits, Choi’s fortunes changed at this year's Honda, where he landed a one-week caddie gig for his friend, Sungjae Im. Together, they survived the toughest non-major test on Tour in 24 years and officially launched Im’s star with a gutsy victory March 1 at PGA National.

Because of the language barrier, the 22-year-old Im has remained somewhat of a mystery to golf fans. Though friendly and unassuming, there’s a mythical quality to him, impressing playing partners with his all-around prowess (keyed by that signature, methodical takeaway) and bewildering Tour types with his ironman approach, playing almost every week and living out of a suitcase, with no permanent residence. Indeed, at 8:30 p.m. on the night of his breakthrough win, Im offered a few parting words to Choi and climbed into a rental Chevy Tahoe, bound for Orlando and the following week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. “Wherever I am, in a hotel or wherever, I feel like this is going to be one of the happiest nights of my life,” he said.

Fill-in duties over, Choi floated to his Dodge Charger in the parking lot and drove the five miles back to his one-bedroom apartment. By the time he dozed off at 1 a.m., he sensed his life would never be the same, but he didn’t yet know how.

The six-figure check hadn’t been deposited in his bank account. The golf world hadn’t been shut down. And he hadn’t fully understood the depths of Im’s kindness.


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IM MIGHT HAVE SEEMED destined for success since he picked up a club in golf-mad South Korea, but Choi wasn’t a typical hotshot prodigy. His parents, both Korean immigrants, owned and operated an Asian fusion restaurant in Surrey, British Columbia. With his family strapped for cash, Choi didn’t play golf from age 9 to 14, helping out instead at the restaurant setting up tables and stocking shelves. The only time he swung a club was in a back room by the kitchen, where he chipped pennies off the carpet and tried to shatter a row of glass bottles.

When his family moved to Toronto to pursue another business opportunity, Choi finally got back into the game, better than ever. A late bloomer, he only broke par for the first time at 16. He then improved rapidly: firing 65s, collecting trophies, joining the Canadian national team.

Teammates marveled not just at Choi’s sound technique but also his intense competitive drive, an attribute he acquired from his brainy mother, Ericka, who had approached studying as Albin did his golf: Relentlessly. “She was very involved,” says Canadian national team coach Derek Ingram. “She lived and died with his golf.”

Locally and nationally, the competition was fierce, as Choi often battled future Tour winners Mackenzie Hughes and Corey Conners. “If I was ever going to win a tournament, I knew I was going to have to beat [Choi],” Hughes says. Choi’s delayed success may have cost him offers from the top college programs, but he wound up following a couple of countrymen to N.C. State, where he won in his third start with the Wolfpack on his way to becoming the ACC Freshman of the Year.

Choi had stamped himself as one of the nation’s top prospects, and over Thanksgiving break in 2011, he was invited to play in the prestigious All-America Golf Classic. Though he didn’t contend, he relished being among college golf’s glitterati and was partaking in the post-tournament festivities when his phone rang.

It was his mom, wanting to chat.

Choi answered but was short with her. It was loud. And he was busy.

“It sounded like she really wanted to talk about something,” he says. “But I told her, ‘Hey, sorry, I’ll give you a call back tomorrow.’ And tomorrow never came.”


Albin Choi slo-mo swing at Rex Hospital Open

Back to the roots. Fresh off a trip home to Toronto, where he celebrated the Toronto Raptors' NBA Finals berth, NC State University alum Albin Choi returns to the Research Triangle for this week's Rex Hospital Open.

Posted by Korn Ferry Tour on Tuesday, May 28, 2019


THE NEXT CALL CHOI received was around 10:30 the following morning. By then he had flown from Texas to South Florida, preparing for the start of a Golf Canada training camp at PGA Village. After dropping off his bags, he was walking to the range when he got the call from his father, Dean. He can still hear the words:

Your mom died last night.

Suicide.

You need to come home.

“I remember the feeling in my gut to this day,” Choi says. “Shock was coursing through my body. I couldn’t even walk.”

After flying home to Toronto, Choi tormented himself over the warning signs he could have – must have – missed. How a piece of her may have been lost when he went away to college. How maybe she was depressed, but the Korean culture had taught her to just forge ahead, to fight through it. Only later did Choi learn from family members about the previous times she’d tried to take her own life. She was 48.

While grieving he felt the tidal wave of guilt and shame: Why didn’t you just pick up the phone?

“I have to live with that the rest of my life,” he says. “I think about it every day. I was always the person to help her out, and I felt like I turned my back on her. I knew her so well, and if I had just talked to her it might have been different. People would always say to me: Well, if not now, then later. But that doesn’t help, because I’d do anything to see her again.”

For six weeks, Choi wouldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Didn’t see anybody. “I’d get these dark thoughts at nighttime when my head hit the pillow,” he says. “It’s like you’re living a nightmare. I just wanted to sleep because I didn’t want to be awake thinking about it anymore.”

Amid the chaos and confusion, he sought the normalcy and routine of college life. He returned to campus following the holiday break. “For six months I was a mess,” he says, “but I said to myself: I’ve got to go do this, not just for me, but because it’s what she would have wanted. That kind of pressure impacted me in a negative way personally, but it also drove me to become a better player. I had so much sadness and anger flowing through me that I just used it to fuel my golf.”

The best golf of his career.

After a dizzying spring semester, he won the 2012 Ontario Amateur, advanced to the Round of 16 at the U.S. Amateur and made the cut at the PGA Tour’s RBC Canadian Open, where he drew effusive praise from 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel. (“Hands down, he’s the best amateur I’ve ever played with – by far.”) More accolades followed: an ACC Player of the Year award; amateur recognition; and nine college titles in three seasons, the second-most in school history. “I don’t know how he did it,” says former N.C. State coach Richard Sykes. “You’d have to have pretty good toughness and intestinal fortitude just to go through life normally, let alone do that.”

By the time Choi decided to forgo his senior year and turn pro, he was a top-10 ranked amateur in the world and one of the best Canadian prospects of the past half-century. But few understood his inner-anguish.

“I’m glad everything worked out, but I was still very broken,” Choi says. “I was so broken at the time that the success didn’t mean much, or as much as it should have. I still felt empty.”

And he was about to leave the protective cocoon of college golf.




IF CHOI HAD STEAMROLLED into college, the opposite was true when he exited in 2013. Trying too hard, tinkering too much, Choi found the path to the Tour unforgiving. Exemptions were squandered. Qualifying school cutoffs missed. Harsh questions asked.

“There was a little bit of a change in him, and it just seemed like he was carrying a lot of that burden around,” says Hughes, a frequent travel companion during their mini-tour days.

On similar tracks for so long, their paths diverged in 2016: Hughes graduated to the PGA Tour, and though Choi had his best year as a pro, finishing 74th on the Korn Ferry Tour money list, it wasn’t enough to earn a promotion. Choi kept his card twice more through Q-School (and four times overall) but never got closer to the big tour.

“Albin Choi is a PGA Tour player all day long,” Ingram says. “He just didn’t quite get there yet.”

During those developmental years, Choi acknowledges now the burden to honor his mother weighed too heavily. “Everyone was so sympathetic and telling me that it was going to be OK,” he says. “I didn’t want people’s pity. Looking back, I was too hard on myself. If I could do those first few years all over again, I’d take a more relaxed approach.”

Floundering professionally, Choi was paired in May 2018 with a promising Korean player named Sungjae Im, then just 20. In the U.S. for the first time, Im traveled with his parents, bouncing from city to city, hotel to hotel. Unable to communicate with most of his peers, Im felt uncomfortable and isolated despite soaring to the top of the money list. Desperate for a connection, he found a willing confidant in Choi. “I’m always the first one to try to make someone feel a little better about being in their own skin,” Choi says. “I know what it’s like to be somewhere new and feel out of place.”

They exchanged numbers after the first two rounds, the beginning of a friendship in which they frequently played practice rounds together and dined on the road. Six years his senior, Choi showed Im the ropes and taught him how to be a professional. They grew closer still when Choi shared his heart-wrenching backstory. Im told his parents that, somehow, some way, he wanted to help.

Last fall, though, they couldn’t have been further apart. While Im became the 2018-19 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and the International Presidents Cup team’s breakout performer, Choi lost his card and flamed out in the first stage of Q-School. His seven-year career was back at square one. His roughly $300,000 in earnings whittled down to nothing.

He was broke.

“I’ve seen red numbers on the course and in the bank account,” he says.

Needing to pay his bills, Choi started caddying six days a week, often 36 holes a day, at Old Palm in South Florida. For five months he didn’t play golf or work on his game. “It was the first time in my life that golf came second,” he says. “People looked at that as me giving up on my goal. The way I looked at it: I had to get back on my feet to get to where I want.”

That’s when Im reached out, looking for a favor.

In a year and a half on Tour, he’d been highly successful but personally unfulfilled, cycling through caddies, unable to find the perfect match. Inside the ropes, Im felt like an outsider. His English wasn’t yet at a comfortable level; sometimes he’d be focused more on communicating properly than the shot at hand. The basics were fine – wind, club, line – but many of the intricacies of the game were lost in translation.

Hoping for a spark, Im tried out former Arizona State player (and bilingual) Ki Taek Lee at the WGC-Mexico, but Lee had already said he’d unavailable for the first leg of the Florida swing – he was attending Jon Rahm’s wedding.

So Im called on Choi, if only for one week at the Honda.

“I didn’t have any expectations,” Im said by email. “I was very fortunate.”


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THE DECISION WAS MADE before he hit a competitive shot that week: Im would pay Choi not as a typical one-week fill-in, but even more than the traditional 10-7-5 percent pay structure (win, top 10, made cut), regardless of where he finished.

It was the least he could do, he said, for his “older brother.”

“I can’t fathom what he has gone through,” Im says. “So while I have plenty of desire to win every time I play an event, having Albin by my side definitely took that desire to another level.”

Entering the Honda, Im was in the midst of an unusually poor stretch of form, with four consecutive finishes outside the top 25. But in practice rounds at PGA National, watching Im’s game up-close for the first time in more than a year, Choi couldn’t believe the transformation. “I’m not used to praising players, because I’m trying to beat them, but oh my God. It was incredible,” Choi says. “He was hitting the ball so straight, so flush.”

“Working on the same code” as Choi, Im freed up and accessed his immense gifts. A second-round 66 propelled Im back into the tournament, then on Saturday he rolled in a 35-footer on the final green to sit three shots back heading into the final round. That bomb on the last meant he’d go off in the fourth-to-last pairing – with Hughes, Choi’s longtime friend and rival.

Throughout the final round, Hughes looked over at his opponents and saw a team that appeared totally in sync, as if they’d been working together for years. “Sungjae just seemed comfortable conversing with him and trusted him,” Hughes says. “He could talk to him without wondering how to get it across. That was really cool, and I thought Albin handled himself really well. He was a huge asset.”

Never greater than when they entered the Bear Trap. First, Choi selected the perfect club (5-iron) on the watery 15th to set up a go-ahead birdie. Then he talked Im into opening up the same club to clear the lip of a fairway bunker on 16, leading to a stress-free par. Clinging to a one-shot lead, Im made his best swing of the day on 17 – a committed 7-iron to 8 feet. Breaking rank to fist-bump Hughes after his marathon birdie pulled him into a tie for the lead, Choi refocused and reaffirmed the read on the birdie putt – inside left – that gave Im his winning margin.

A Tour star born, the next few hours were a blur for both player and caddie: the hugs and the interviews (for which Choi served as translator) and the various winner obligations.

Then, in a quiet moment in the locker room, Im’s mother cut Choi a check.

Of the $1.26 million first-place prize, Choi took home 10 percent ... plus a base week rate ... and then a little extra on top of that.

Do the math.

Im’s generosity was life changing.

“For someone who has gone through what Albin has, and for him to be that kind to me on and off the golf course,” Im says, “it’s not hard to think that you should help someone like that in life.”


Albin Choi
Albin Choi
Translated: "To: Albin - Thank you!"​​​​​

 


AND THAT WAS SUPPOSED to be it – a gift for Im’s secret weapon. A week later at Bay Hill, Im nearly won again (with Lee on the bag, as previously arranged), then started with a sub-70 score at The Players Championship before it was canceled. He entered the break as the FedExCup points leader, in line for a $15 million payday.

Though the threat of the coronavirus suspended the season for the Tour’s one-percenters, it was far more devastating for those dreamers toiling in anonymity on the developmental circuits. Qualifying school was canceled this fall, and with no promotion or relegation, the pipeline to the PGA Tour was clogged; for someone with Choi’s limited status, the earliest he now could qualify for the Tour was fall 2022.

So with no tournaments to prepare for, Choi reconnected with Im in late April. After the Tour shutdown, Im’s nomadic lifestyle had led him to Saddlebrook Resort outside Tampa, where he set up camp with his parents. Im invited Choi to stay and practice with him, and each day they grinded until late afternoon and then crashed in the family’s suite. They ordered sushi and cooked up traditional Korean dishes and talked deep into the night about the uncertain future.

Albin Choi and Sungjae Im
Albin Choi

That’s when Im recognized another opportunity.

He offered Choi the caddie job – full time.

“At the time I thought it was just going to be a one-week partnership,” Im says, “but I really felt that he cared about me.”

With the feeder tours on hold and a foundation for success already established, agreeing to loop for Im was a no-brainer. It was an opportunity for Choi to learn from the pros, to help Im untap his massive potential and, if he wanted, to pad his pockets for another run at a Tour card.

And besides, here was the ultimate lottery ticket. A weekly warrior. Top-25 player in the world. Human ATM. “I really think he can do incredible things,” Choi says.

Now that they’re official, starting June 11 at Colonial, Choi sounds like he’s in the early stages of a relationship: Hesitant to move too fast, to commit too deeply. Let’s see how these next six months go. His coaches, teammates and friends all believe this is a temporary move; that Choi is too talented, and has come too close, to shelve his own bag, to live his dream vicariously through Im.

“I just want to use this experience to find myself and clear my head,” Choi says. “I really think this is going to tell me what I want to do moving forward.”

Deep down, Im knows what he wants – a long-term partnership – but won’t stand in the way of Choi’s goals. Not after what he has endured over the past decade. Not after forming this brotherly bond.

Asked what Choi has meant to him, Im took nearly 10 minutes to respond, searching for the right words.

Then he typed this:

“Wow ... you know, coming to America, with little English skills and little knowledge of America in general, and on top of that trying to make a name for myself and succeed, there would be times where I’d feel uncomfortable on and off the golf course. But meeting, befriending and eventually getting to work with Albin, I’ve found a comfort that’s been hard to find. That’s why I’m so thankful for him.”

Hearing this later, Choi took a moment to process it. “It’s very touching,” he says.

The feeling was mutual. He couldn’t wait to get to work.