The traditional champagne shower in celebration of a player’s victory is typically reserved for the 18th green on Sunday. But Na Yeon Choi had plenty of reasons to celebrate on Thursday. And the champagne couldn’t wait.
In her first competitive round on the LPGA Tour in 11 months, Choi announced her return with a bogey-free, 7-under par 65 to take a share of the early lead on day one at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. Fellow Korean and LPGA member, Jenny Shin, stood armed with a cup of champagne in one hand and her cell phone in the other in order to capture the moment as she showered her unsuspecting friend behind the 18th green.
“I'm very happy to be back on tour,” Choi said after her round.
It was certainly a round worth celebrating for the Korean, who spent the last four years battling a back injury that left her emotionally and physically broken.
Choi first noticed the pain in June 2015 during a rain delay at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. That was the last time she won on Tour. Choi continued to play hurt and the following month, at the AIG Women’s British Open at Turnberry, she posted back-to-back rounds of 76 on the weekend before needing to be helped off the golf course. She took 10 weeks off before returning to the Tour, but for the next three years continued to play with pain.
“I just kept playing golf and my swing got worse and worse and hitting my ball going left and right,” Choi recalled. “I think I had driver yips. I think it's from injury.”
The physical agony wasn’t something Choi was used to, and neither were the results. Choi is a nine-time winner on the LPGA Tour and major champion, who has more than $10 million dollars in career earnings. She spent nearly four consecutive years ranked inside the top 10 in the world, climbing as high as No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings. The emotional fallout was as difficult to endure as the physical pain as she recorded just four top 10s between 2016 and 2018 and slipped to her current world ranking at No. 486.
“’You're kind of burn out,’” Choi recalled her friends telling her. “’You need a break and get ready your body first, and then you know you can do your golf game.’”
In April 2018, Choi withdrew from the HUGEL-AIR PREMIA LA Open and took a medical exemption from the Tour. The support of Hall of Famers Beth Daniel and Meg Mallon helped Choi realize she couldn’t heal physically without first healing emotionally.
“My mentally is like totally broken,” Choi said. “They always say, if your body is not ready your mental can't be ready, so I just decide take care my body first.”
That began with a break away from golf.
Choi debated whether to remain in the United States or return to Korea. Instead, she decided to travel the world in order to completely escape from the game. She spent two weeks getting lost in Europe, traveling by bus and train to six different countries. The experience allowed her to break from her routine on Tour. She was free to wake up whenever she wanted, eat whatever she wanted and do whatever she wanted. They were freedoms she hadn’t enjoyed during 11 years on Tour.
“I think I was kind of a robot when I was growing up and then playing golf well in LPGA Tour. I think I was like living in the box,” Choi said. “I couldn't do anything besides golf. Only golf, only golf; like 100% focused on golf. I think that's why I got a little bit burn out.”
During her hiatus, Choi underwent rehab on her back. She did Pilates, stretched and strengthened her core. She only returned to the game when she felt ready.
“Suddenly I just woke up in the morning, I miss golf,” Choi remembered feeling after nearly five months. “I was waiting until I feel that I miss golf.”
The major champion grabbed her clubs and headed to an indoor driving range in Korea to get reacquainted with her swing. It was a strange feeling for Choi, who didn’t jump back in immediately. She played once or twice a week and often with her friends. She wanted the game to be fun, not a job.
“I try to drink some beer and get a little tipsy and playing golf because we always play golf in serious mode, and I just like to play more fun.”
Choi had fun on Thursday. She was back to enjoying the game that has brought her so much success. The simple joy of walking amongst friends was enough for Choi. The low round was just a bonus.
“Of course I'm happy with my score,” Choi said. “But also I'm just happy be on the fairway and walking with the friends.”
And her friends were happy to celebrate her return.