Albin Choi plans to turn pro this summer, leaving behind a decorated amateur career that includes the Canadian Amateur Championship title in 2010 and eight U.S. college victories.
The 20-year-old from Toronto confirmed in an interview that he will leave North Carolina State after his junior year this spring to pursue his dream of playing golf professionally.
He believes his game is ready, and it’s hard to argue with him. He won three consecutive tournaments this winter to reach eight titles during his three seasons at N.C. State, two off the school record held by fellow Canadian Matt Hill.
The streak has taken him to a No. 9 in the world amateur ranking.
“I wouldn’t be doing it if I thought I wasn’t ready,” he said by telephone from N.C. State in Raleigh, N.C. “I just feel like everything has fallen right into place. I feel like my game is there.”
But his readiness goes beyond his physical abilities. The soft-spoken and thoughtful Choi said he’s found mental clarity and peace, too, after a difficult year grieving the death of his mother and biggest fan in late 2011.
“My head’s in it now,” he said, adding golf brings him joy again.
“... I’ve been playing well for the last few months (but) I’ve also had some bad times. It was pretty bad then. So having the success now just brings out more of the fun part of the game rather than the struggle.”
Choi said he initially intended to stay all four years at N.C. State but quietly decided to turn pro last year. He believes he would have had his mother’s blessing.
“My mother always said if the time is right, the time is right. Whenever you’re playing good is the time to take your game to the next level. She said if I felt ready, then I knew my game the best.”
He’s not the only one who thinks it’s time to take the next step.
Derek Ingram, head of the Canadian men’s national amateur team, calls Choi “the real deal.”
“He hits it so solid and so flush,” said Ingram, who coached Choi last year on the amateur team, spending more than 80 days with him, and even caddied for him when his charge played in the RBC Canadian Open at Hamilton Golf and Country Club last July. “You can actually hear the difference (compared to other players).”
Ingram said he sees no real holes in Choi’s game, although he could be a little more consistent in his often-streaky putting and short game. He added he’s a “really solid guy” and mature for his age, perhaps because his mother’s death forced him to grow up.
“We talked about it (turning pro) last year and I didn’t feel the need to lie to him,” Ingram said. “He’s ready.”
Tour players came to the same conclusion at the Canadian Open, where Choi made the cut and finished as the low amateur. Ingram said veteran Vijay Singh was among the players who stopped to discreetly watch Choi swing on the range at Hamilton. Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion who played with Choi in the fourth round, issued the kind of assessment that could prove prophetic if Choi’s career blossoms as expected.
“Hands down, he’s the best amateur I have ever played with by far,” the South African said. “I think he’s got the most potential.”
Choi is looking forward to giving to realizing that potential. He said he doesn’t have an exact date to turn pro in mind – he said “June-ish” – and hasn’t thought much about such business matters as representation and sponsors.
But he’s doing everything he can to prepare an enticing calling card that will make tournament directors and potential sponsors take notice.
Heading into the Hootie at Bull’s Bay Intercollegiate tournament in Awandaw, S.C., on Monday, Choi had four wins overall this season and seven top-10 finishes in eight starts.
He’s also a candidate for the 2013 Ben Hogan Award, a prize given to the top U.S. college player. (The winner is announced May 20. Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler and fellow Canadian Nick Taylor are among recent winners.) “I just think it was good timing,” he said, explaining his recent stretch of excellence. “Whenever a tournament seems to come up, I seem to play well.”
While there is never any guarantee that a college phenom will build a long and successful career as a pro, that’s a good formula for success. Play well when it matters.