The first time Na Yeon Choi missed the cut on the LPGA as a member (after 63 starts), her mom suggested that she go to the grocery store and buy a carton of eggs. Then she told her to throw them. Choi hurled eggs at the wall until she felt better, and then cleaned up the mess.
She told that story more than a decade ago without the aid of an interpreter. Choi was so committed to learning English in those early days that the South Korean hired a tutor to circle the globe.
She took her freedom a step further when she asked her parents to go back to South Korea and support her from a distance. In a way, this unusual act of independence made Choi a bit of a pioneer among her peers, who mostly traveled with family.
The decision came in her second year on tour after Choi found herself crying in a bathroom after a top-10 finish. Choi’s well-meaning parents kept quizzing her on what went wrong that week. She yearned for independence.
“My dad was like, ‘How dare you? I sacrificed my life for you, and you’re playing the LPGA,’ ” Choi once told Golfweek. “I want to see you win.”
Choi did win a few months later, and then cried about the fact that her parents weren’t there to see it. Life on the road can be lonely and complicated. Over the years, Choi has been open and honest about her journey.
Choi Na-Yeon of South Korea waves a hand to the fans during the award ceremony of the final round of the 2010 LPGA Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf Club on October 31, 2010, in Incheon, South Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
After this week’s BMW Ladies Championship, Choi — who is playing on a sponsor exemption — will retire from the LPGA. She first shared the news earlier this month on her Instagram account. The 15-year tour veteran turns 35 later this month. She won nine times on the LPGA, including the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, and ranked as high as No. 2. Choi has banked nearly $11 million in her career, putting her 19th on the career money list.
“I had been considering it, so I gave myself this season and around midseason, it sort of crystalized into this decision to retire,” said Choi in a pre-tournament press conference at Oak Valley Country Club.
“There was no one single moment where I decided this was the time to announce my retirement. I have been playing for a long time and I really want to start something new as fast as I can, and what that’s going to be, I have no idea. But I have no regrets with my career as a golfer, and I’m sure that I’m probably going to end up doing something related to golf, but I’m very excited to start the second chapter.”
Choi was 10 years old when she watched Se Ri Pak win the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open at Blackwolf Run. It was then that she knew she wanted to come to the U.S. to compete. She turned professional at age 16 and her parents sold both of their businesses (a gas station and restaurant) to support her.
After three seasons on the KLPGA, Choi joined the LPGA in 2008 and finished 11th on the money list in her rookie year. Toward the end of the next season, the pressure to win was almost suffocating. She met with Vision54 coaches the week of the 2009 Samsung World Championship and won that same week.
She’d go on to follow in the footsteps of Pak, winning the Open at Blackwolf Run three years later.
Na Yeon Choi of South Korea poses with the championship trophy after her four-stroke victory at the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open on July 8, 2012, at Blackwolf Run in Kohler, Wisconsin. (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
In her retirement announcement, Choi said she both loved and gated golf, and that she’ll miss the challenge of it.
“Looking back on my 18 years,” she wrote, “I wish I could have made more friends as I had wanted to. I was busy heading forward without looking around, making the excuse of my not-so-perfect English and being coy.
“Now I’ll cheer for all players from afar. I know that they have to go through lonely battles with themselves. Instead of just saying cheer up, I want to tell them, ‘Try to be relaxed and thankful. Be more focused on yourself and cherish and love yourself. You are always great players.’ ”
In the second half of her career, Choi battled a back injury and driver yips. She sought the advice of World Golf Hall of Famers Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon, once taking five days over the Thanksgiving holiday to pour out her soul.
Na Yeon Choi of South Korea hits a tee shot on the 10th hole during the second round of the LPGA Founders Cup at Wildfire Golf Club on March 20, 2015, in Phoenix. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
When she needed more time to heal, Choi took a medical exemption and went on a solo trip to Europe.
“She’s actually one of the only players who really listened to us,” said Mallon, who believes far too many players don’t take the proper amount of time to recover from injuries.
That’s when Choi first realized that she could have a life apart from tournament golf.
Now she’s ready to bravely step into the unknown once more. No regrets.