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Na Yeon Choi first dreamt of playing on the LPGA Tour when at the age of 10, she watched Se Ri Pak capture the 1998 U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run. On Sunday, Choi's dreams of becoming a major winner came true as she took home the 2012 U.S. Women's Open title on the same course where Pak captured her most memorable victory. Choi shot a final-round, 1-over 73 to take a four-shot victory over fellow South Korean Amy Yang and earn her first ever major title.
The 24-year-old South Korean elicited memories of Pak's victory with her play on Sunday as she started the day off with a six-stroke lead but had to overcome some bumps along the way. After cruising through the front nine at even-par, Choi ran into trouble on the 10th when she had a triple bogey to cut her lead to two shots. But she grinded her way through a tough stretch and with birdies on three of her next six holes, brought her lead back to five shots. A bogey on the 18th couldn't erase the smile on Choi's face as she celebrated her victory with a shower of champagne from her fellow Koreans, including Pak. The humble Choi bowed to her elder, Pak, at the end of the celebration.
"She said, hey, Na Yeon, I'm really proud of you. You did a really good job, and you was really calm out there. She talked to me a lot. And she was hugging me," Choi said. " That was -- like 14 years ago I was only  years old, and like when I was watching TV, my goal was like -- my dream was like I just want to be there. And 14 years later I'm here right now, and I made it. My dreams come true. It's an amazing day today, and like I really appreciate what Se Ri did and all the Korean players, they did. It's really no way I can be here without them."
Choi becomes the fourth South Korean in the last five years to win the U.S. Women's Open, joining Inbee Park (2008), Eun-Hee Ji (2009) and So Yeon Ryu (2011). This is her sixth career victory on the LPGA Tour and her first major championship. Her previous best finish in a major was a T2 at the 2010 U.S. Women's Open at Oakmont.
Choi took up golf while in third grade and she credits her father â€“ Byung Ho Choi â€“ for playing a large role in her golfing career. He owned a gas station in the countryside of South Korea in a small town called O-San. Choi would help pump gas at the full service station and when business was slow, she would practice her wedges by lobbing shots over a 1-meter tall heater that her father would catch with a baseball glove. She also practiced hitting shots into a rice field behind her house and would have to go pick all of them up.
While her parents played a huge part in helping her to make it on the LPGA Tour, Choi made a decision toward the middle of 2009 to ask her parents to go back to Korea so that she could become what she called an "adult" and pursue her golfing career independently. It wasn't an easy decision, considering that she would then have to do everything on her own and do it without the two people who she loves very dearly.
With her parents still in Korea, Choi was by herself for this important victory and she choked up during the trophy presentation when she started speaking about her family. Choi is flying back to Korea on Monday to see her parents and celebrate this special win with the two people who did so much to get her to this point in her career.
"I haven't talked with my parents yet, but I don't know, maybe my mom was crying or my dad was crying. I don't know, but I'm pretty sure they really happy right now," Choi said. " And I'm going to Korea tomorrow, and I love to see my parents in the airport, and I really miss -- actually, I feel really sorry for them, because they are not here right now. But I'm pretty sure they were watching on TV and they couldn't sleep last night, and they supported me a lot. I really appreciate what they did."
After recording a triple bogey on the 10th hole that cut her lead to two shots, Na Yeon Choi bounced back with a birdie on the 11th to get her lead back to three. Choi then sank a 20-foot, par-saving putt on the 12th after finding trouble and got two kind bounces off the rocks on the par-3 13th that kept her from going into the water as she went on to save par.
Choi was a big fan of professional wrestling growing up and used to wrestle with her older brother. She felt that the first person to show tears would be the loser in a fight so she always tried hard not to cry. At 5-foot-5 with a slender stature, Choi has joked that she's much stronger than she looks. So perhaps it's no surprise that one of Choi's favorite quotes comes from legendary boxer, Muhammad Ali. "Float like a butterfly and sting like a bee."
And on this day, she agreed that it was her mental strength to get through that rough stretch which made her a champion.
"That moment maybe I thought I might screw up today, but I thought I needed to fix that. I can do it," Choi said of her thoughts after the triple bogey. "So I tried to think what I have to do. So I decided I have to talk with my caddie. So I started to talk with my caddie about just like what airplane tomorrow, or about the car or about the vacation. Not golf. And then I had a good result on 11. I made a birdie, and I had a good par on 12. After that I got really good vibes from there. And 13 I had a little bit miss to the right, but after two bounce and ball kicked to the left from right side hazard, so I think I pretty good control my emotions today."
For the second straight year, South Koreans captured the top two spots in the U.S. Women's Open. Amy Yang finished in sole possession of second place, shooting a 1-under 71
The finish tied Yang's career-best and it also marks her best finish in a major. Her previous-best finish was a T4 at this year's Kraft Nabisco Championship and a fourth place finish at last year's RICOH Women's British Open.
"I learned a lot," Yang said. "It gives me a lot of confidence that I came in second this week. My game is feeling pretty good and I'm going to keep trying hard."
Sandra Gal delivered her best career performance in a major by finishing third at this week's U.S. Women's Open. But she acknowledged that it was a bit of a struggle during Sunday's final round.
"I just really, really hung in there today," said Gal, who shot 2-over 74. "I didn't hit a lot of greens. I made up-and-down from everywhere and then I was lucky to roll in a few longer putts and I just stuck it out till the end. I had to chip out on 18 and I hit a nice little pitch shot close. That's about how my game was all day."
Gal, who became a Rolex First-Time Winner at last year's Kia Classic, was pleased with the way she was able to play this week. It marks her first top-10 finish in 14 events this year and she credits one change to making a big difference for her this week.
"I think what really turned it around was my putting," Gal said. "I did change putters last week to a Metal X Callaway putter, and I started rolling it really nicely with it and I think that really, really helped me this week."
Se Ri Pak was determined to be in the field for this week's U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run, so determined that she has found a way to battle through a shoulder injury that many believed would keep her off the golf course for months.
Despite suffering a labrum tear in her left shoulder during a fall at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic back in April, Pak found a way to compete again on the course where she captured her most memorable victory â€“ the 1998 U.S. Women's Open. She finished out the week in grand fashion too, shooting a 1-under 71 to jump from T25 into a T9 and record a top-10 finish at a place she has come to love.
"I'm trying to take it easy on it because I really want to be out here this week," Pak said of her shoulder. "So I'm glad I'm here. Of course, I wanted to be at top of the leaderboard. I'm trying to actually do my best, but it's pretty hard. It's very difficult."
Considering how much Pak's victory here in 1998 meant to South Korean golf, it seemed fitting that as Pak was finishing up her round on the 18th hole, Choi was on the adjacent 9th green. The moment was almost a symbolic passing of the torch.
"I'm trying to give her a little look back, but I don't want her to lose her focus, so I'm trying to not give her look," Pak said. "But you know, she's already been there many times. She won five times already, and of course, this is a little different than a regular event, but of course, having a lot of pressure herself, but she's good enough to be out there, hung in there."
For nine holes on Sunday, it looked like Rolex Rankings No.1 Yani Tseng had gotten her game back on track. But then she made the turn and the wheels fell off. After shooting 33 on the front nine of her final round, Tseng posted a 45 on the back to shoot her second straight round of 78.
"It was like some amateur was playing on the Back 9," Tseng said. "But I mean these four days I played nine holes good every day. It was like switch on and off. It was like perfect front 9 and Back 9 was just way off. It was like a totally different person playing golf."
For Tseng, the round of 78 marked the 11th consecutive round where she has failed to break par. It's certainly an uncharacteristic stretch of golf for the world No.1 but while the question "What's wrong with Yani?" is starting to come more frequently, Tseng said she's not too concerned about her game just yet.
"I still feel confidence," Tseng said. "I only play three [bad] tournaments. I know it's three in a row, but it's not the end of the world. So still have lots of tournaments left, and I have two weeks off the next two weeks, and hopefully I can come back to play well in the Evian Masters."
15-year-old Lydia Ko earned low amateur honors at the U.S. Women's Open, finishing at 12-over-par 300 for the week after shooting a final round 75.
"I guess only three amateurs did make it to the weekend, but everyone out here, they deserve to be out here, and they earned their way here," Ko said. "So I'm honored to get the low [amateur] prize."
Ko, who is ranked the No. 1 Women's Amateur in the World Amateur Golf Rankings, became the youngest person to ever win a professional golfer event back in February. She won the Bing Lee/Samsung Women's NSW Open on the ALPG at the age of 14. Ko also played in one LPGA Tour event earlier this year, the ISPS Handa Women's Australian Open, where she finished in a T19.
Golden ticket winners: Sandra Gal, Ilhee Lee and Giulia Sergas punched their "Ticket to CME Group Titleholders" at the U.S. Women's Open, each earning a spot in the season-ending CME Group Titleholders event, which will be held Nov. 15-18, 2012 at The TwinEagles in Naples, Fla. The second annual CME Group Titleholders is a season finale with a field made up of three qualifiers from every LPGA Tour tournament.
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