So you’re 19 years old and something of a golf prodigy.
You started playing at the age of 6. Not at the urging of an uber-parent like Earl Woods; in fact, neither your parents or your older sister play. But you grow up in a golf course community in Seoul, Korea, and the course becomes your playground of sorts. It’s fun for you; furthermore, you show uncommon knack for the game. Travels with your family take you to Thailand and Arizona where you win some junior tournaments. And somewhere between the ages of 11 and 12 you decide that you want to be a professional golfer.
But your parents want you to have a fallback plan, so they make sure you study hard. At the same time, they encourage your interest in golf. You win several AJGA events; then at 14, you spend a couple of years at the prestigious Loretto School in Musselburgh, just outside of Edinburgh. You wow the golf coach with your swing, and you take delight in playing the great seaside courses in Scotland. And along the way, you become the youngest ever to win the Welsh Ladies Open, the Danish International Ladies Amateur Championship, and the English Women’s Open Stroke Play Championship.
Eventually it’s time for college, and you quickly become a mainstay on the highly acclaimed Oklahoma State ladies golf team, earning All Big 12 honors on the golf course and in the classroom. You reach the semi-finals of the USGA Public Links championship and fare well in inter-collegiate tournaments.
Junior year is completed (somewhere along the way, you skipped a grade and graduated from high school at 16), and you make the decision to go through the LPGA Q-School, a grueling elimination held in three stages in different parts of the country. There are hundreds of women vying for 20 exempt spots on the LPGA tour. Some, like you, are making their first attempt at getting a tour card. Others are seasoned veterans whose games have perhaps temporarily deserted them, and are making a determined effort to get back to where they once were.
You get through the first two stages and arrive at the Hills Course at LPGA Headquarters in Daytona Beach for what can most charitably described as 5 Days of Golf Hell. The pressure at Q-School finals is unlike any other in professional golf, as you are literally playing for your career. Your first three rounds are rather pedestrian, but the fourth yields a nifty 67. A solid 71 on the final day pushes you into a seven-way tie for 18th place . . . but only three are going to be given tour cards, which means a sudden-death play-off for those spots.
You are still an amateur, but the LPGA officials tell you that if you choose to participate in the playoff, you must declare yourself a professional. With a gulp and a smile, you agree.
Welcome to your dream, Julie Yang.
The LPGA North Texas Shootout event is held at Las Colinas Country Club, less than a mile from where we live. The Golf Nerd Goddess and I thought that it would be fun to host a player needing accommodations for the event (this is fairly common on the LPGA and Web.com tours). After passing whatever muster was required (suitable location, no felony arrests, and no bedbugs), we learned that we would be hosting Julie.
The GNG found her on Facebook and started messaging her; she received a reply almost immediately and we all began chatting. When I checked out her page, I was stunned to see a photo taken maybe 5 years ago on her page that featured the son of a British couple that I know. It turned out that he (George is his name) and Julie both attended Loretto . This naturally piqued my interest; I messaged George (a pretty fair golfer in his own right who is 17 going on 30) and inquired about our future guest.
“Oh, yes, Julie! Fantastic golf swing! How do you know her?”
I explained the above; George gave the predictable “small world” response, and added, “Please give my regards, if she remembers me.”
Don’t worry, buddy. She does. Instant connection.
Julie and her mother Brenda (she’s in the States for about 6 weeks) arrive on the Saturday before the tournament. She greets us with a big hug. We have a little bit of time to talk before she heads over to the club to practice and hopefully a practice round – it’s been uncommonly rainy in Texas this spring, and Las Colinas does not drain particularly well.
Julie, unfortunately, did not get one of the top 20 Q-School playoff spots (if she had managed one shot better, she would have safely finished in a tie for 11th with several other players, including one Cheyenne Woods who, rumor has it, has an uncle who is a pretty fair player). She instead has what is called “Category 17” status, which will likely get her into a good number of events while causing some anxious moments. She was listed as the 4th alternate for this particular tournament, which meant that if three players already in the field or ahead of her on the alternate list did not drop from the field, she would have to enter in the Monday qualifier, in which 50 players vie for two open slots. Luckily for her, a spot opened up so she did not have to attempt to qualify.
Her days are long – she’ll stretch and exercise for an hour in the morning, and then head over to the course to practice for a couple of hours before playing a practice round. During non-tournament weeks, she’ll spend five to six hours practicing. After dinner, it’s another 45 minutes of stretching, and then bedtime. And repeat.
We dine together a few times – Julie is quietly engaging; she speaks fluent English (as well as Thai and her native Korean). I get the sense that she realizes where she is in her golfing career, but does not seem overwhelmed by the moment. I think to myself, “This kid has it.”
Day One of the tournament comes on Thursday. Sharon and I can’t make it, but I have the LPGA Leaderboard app up on my iPhone and keep hitting refresh once she tees off at 12:10. She starts with a birdie, follows it with a messy double bogey, and then reels off three consecutive birdies. Damn, I muse, I wish I was out there. And then I realize how invested I’ve become with her.
She finishes the day with a one under par 70, only four shots behind the leaders. The stats from her round indicate a wild ride to get there; only 10 greens in regulation, but also only 24 putts. After some post round practice, Julie and Brenda arrive back at the house; I high-five her and congratulate her on the round. She smiles and comments, “ Well, there were a few speed bumps out there, but it was fun.”
“Put another one up tomorrow, “ I respond, “and you’ll be playing on the weekend.”
We take them across the street to our favorite southwestern restaurant, and see tour player Christina Kim leaving the premises, fuming about having to wait an hour. Sharon winks at us and says, “Don’t worry, we won’t have that long of a wait.” We watch as she negotiates with the owner; ten minutes later we are seated. I mention to the staff and whoever else in earshot that we have a genuine professional golfer in our midst. Julie beams. All seems right with the world.
Sharon and I arrive at Las Colinas CC for Julie’s 7:15 AM tee time for round two. It does not start well for her; her opening drive hooks into the trees on the left, and she’s not able to recover cleanly. Bogey. She fares better on the second, making par, and spots us as she leaves the green.
“Do you have any bug spray?” she whispers. “The mosquitoes are awful!”
Another errant drive on three finds her up against a tree; Sharon and I hold our collective breath as she plays a left-handed shot successfully back in to the fairway. Still, it’s another bogey. “Damn,” I hear Sharon mutter.
Julie settles down for the next four holes, making solid pars and just missing on a couple of birdie chances. But disaster strikes on 8; she hooks her tee shot into the water and bogies, and follows that up with another bogey on 9. She’s gone from under to three over and now is in danger of missing the cut (projected to be one over).
I spot Brenda walking alone. “How are you holding up?” I ask.
“Bad,” she smiles sadly. “Very bad.”
Things do not get any better on the back side. Julie continues to have trouble with her tee ball and bogies 11. Number 13 finally yields a birdie, but 14 is a disaster; after a decent drive, her second shot finds a bunker that is short of the green, leaving her with a long bunker shot to a hole position that falls away from her. Guarding against over shooting the flag, her third shot comes up woefully short, and it takes three more tries for her to hole out for a hideous double-bogey 6, which for all intent removes any hope of making the cut.
But Julie soldiers on, making pars on 15, 16, and 17, and closes out her round with a nice birdie on 18. She finishes with a five over par round of 76, and stoically marches off the course, making a beeline to the scorer’s tent.
We all go out to dinner that night. I don’t want to dwell on negatives, but am curious if driving the ball is usually an issue for Julie. She does not seem put off by the question, and replies “No, not really. You know, that’s just the way the game seems to go sometimes.” And I have to remind myself that this is a 19 year old kid playing her third professional tournament.
As they are staying through the weekend, I ask if she would be practicing on Saturday. “No,” she smiles, “I think I need a day off. We’ll probably take in a movie or something.”
“Well, would you like to play with us on Sunday on the TPC course?”
Her eyes light up.
“Oh, I’d LOVE to play with you and Sharon! That would be awesome!”
So, I make arrangements for us to play early Sunday afternoon. It’s a perfect day, and Julie wants to have some kind of match with me. She proves to be a master negotiator as far as strokes are concerned, so I only wind up with four per side. We decide on a $5 Nassau.
Playing with Julie is a joy. Since she’s not played our course before, I give her some guidance for targets. Unlike most folks, she actually executes the shots I recommend (although she chides me about wanting to give her false information, given our bet).
I birdie the first hole, which prompts a howl of indignation from her – “I’m giving you HOW many shots?”
We banter back and forth throughout the round. Virtually every shot she hits is solid – at 5’7”, she drives the ball between 250 and 260 yards, and when she does miss the green, she controls the ball like a sorceress with her chipping and putting. She and Sharon converse in the cart during the round; she complements Sharon’s putting stroke – and curses mine, as while my ball striking is somewhat erratic, I’m making most every putt I stand over – I record 12 putts on the front nine, and take a two-up lead. Sharon half-jokes that this is the hardest she’s seen me work at anything in a long time.
Eventually, though, reality hits, and she winds up taking me for $5, which I begrudgingly hand over, muttering about how unfair it was to have only 8 shots from a genuine professional. She giggles and, as is her wont, gave me a big hug. It was the most fun I’d had on a golf course in a long time.
The following morning, I took Julie, Brenda, and her caddie Mark (pronounced “Mahk;” we commiserated over the Yankees sweep of the Red Sox) to the airport. It’s on to South Carolina for a mini-tour event, and then to Williamsburg, VA to play at the LPGA Tournament at Kingsmill. For someone who had been in our life for a week, the goodbye was pretty misty.
Later that evening, we got a call from Julie; she first spoke to Sharon and then wanted to talk to me to thank us for being so hospitable. She felt like she was at home with us, and missed our goodnight hugs. I told her that it was a privilege for us to have her, and that she was welcome to stay with us anytime. And to play hard. She promised she would.
How do you not root for a kid like that?