BY BEVERLEY SMITH
Orlando, Fla. - Baffled perhaps by its pronunciation, the spectators simply abbreviated her name.
"NYC! NYC! NYC!" they chanted, as Na Yeon Choi, won the Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic in July.
Later the crowd amused itself by changing the chant to "Big Apple! Big Apple!"
Confused, Choi asked fellow South Korean Inbee Park to translate. "Big city," she said.
Now fans of women's golf know her name well. A long hitter and consistent player, Choi is in a race for the player-of-the-year title as the season closes this weekend with the LPGA Tour Championship. She shot 71 Friday and is tied for 11th, at even par.
Choi trails compatriot Amy Yang who leads at seven under par. Another South Korean, Seon Hwa Lee, is tied for second, three shots back.
Choi also has shots at attaining the world No. 1 ranking and at winning the Vare Trophy for the player with the lowest scoring average of the season. Her toughest competition for the titles is another South Korean, Jiyai Shin, who has struggled to eight over par after two rounds.
They are part of a new generation of South Koreans who are dominating the LPGA Tour. South Koreans have won 11 of 25 tournaments including the past four. Seven of the first 13 on the Tour Championship leaderboard are South Korean (the tournament was suspended because of darkness).
Although it's been only 12 years since Se Ri Pak became the first South Korean to join the LPGA full-time, today about a third of the top 100 women's players are from South Korea. Nine of them, including Pak, are in the top-20 on the career money list. Pak, who shot 69 Friday and is tied for ninth, has already been inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame.
Korean players think golf 24/7, says Pak, 32, who has won more than $10.6-million (sixth on the list behind Annika Sorenstam).
If a young child in South Korea shows any kind of aptitude for wielding a golf club, her parents hone her skills with a powerful zeal, finding the best coaches. Because of it, the youngsters are precocious, ready to play when they hit the LPGA. Pak's father pushed her into the sport, she said.
"We have really big support of the family," said Shin, whose father used to play golf. (Choi's father wanted to play pro golf, but he never qualified.) Shin's father introduced his daughter to the game when she was 11 and now she's been playing half of her life. Choi started playing when she was 10.
For the past 10 years, Shin said her father was with her all the time, pushing to practise. "Sometimes [it felt]really hard," she said. "But I get more focused to the golf, because my father all the time standing next to me."
Shin says some Korean players don't know anything about "hanging out with the friends" or socializing.
Shin took over No. 1 spot from the retired Lorena Ochoa early in the year for seven weeks and relinquished it only because she underwent emergency appendectomy on June 8. She's currently No. 2, behind Choi.
Shin thinks some Korean players have pushed their bodies too much. In the past, she has said she won't play when she's older than 35. This week, she said she is undecided about her future. In September, Shin almost decided to forgo the tour because of stomach problems after the appendectomy and fatigue. But she started winning again in Asia, her confidence grew and she came back.
In August of 2008, the Tour tried to force foreign players to learn English as a condition of playing. Players who'd been LPGA members for two years would have been suspended if unable to pass an oral evaluation. Tournament director Kate Peters of the LPGA State Farm Classic endorsed the bylaw, saying: "This is an American tour. It is important for sponsors to be able to interact with players and have a positive experience."
The LPGA backed down after being fiercely criticized, but since then, Choi and Shin are among the South Korean players who have learned English willingly and begun integrating into the great American melting pot.
So little English did Choi understand when she came to the United States, "I couldn't even order a hamburger," she said. This week Choi announced that she will donate $30,000 to the LPGA-USGA Girls Golf, a program of the LPGA Foundation. She's doing it, she said, because without the LPGA, she wouldn't be playing all over the world.
Shin learned a lesson in American traffic, when she picked U.S. Thanksgiving Sunday to drive from her home near Atlanta to Orlando for the tournament. "Bad traffic," she said, also in English. "It took me 81/2 hours by car."
It is clear that Shin has found her own way. She may be the exception rather than the rule. Or it may become the new South Korean way.