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(Yonhap Interview) Teen golf phenom not lacking confidence, or distance off tee

All Headlines 08:00 October 12, 2018

By Yoo Jee-ho

INCHEON, Oct. 12 (Yonhap) -- Brimming with self-assurance that she can take on grown-ups on the world's premier women's professional golf tour, Yealimi Noh isn't your average teenager.

And with a fluid, powerful swing that generates a ton of distance from her tall frame, Noh isn't your average teenage golfer, either.

The 17-year-old phenom, born to South Korean parents in San Francisco, went on a tear in junior golf in July, winning the Girls Junior PGA Championship, the U.S. Girls' Junior Championship and the Canadian Women's Amateur Championship in three consecutive weeks. Before that winning streak, Noh won the California Girls' State Championship in late June.

Yealimi Noh of the United States watches her shot during the first round of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf Club's Ocean Course in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, on Oct. 11, 2018, in this photo courtesy of the tournament organizers. (Yonhap)

Noh has been so dominant as an amateur that she has decided to go pro. Noh turned down a scholarship offer from UCLA this summer and will be playing for money starting early next year, at the latest.

For this week, at least, she is the only amateur at the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship, her second professional tournament which began Thursday at Sky 72 Golf Club's Ocean Course, adjacent to Incheon International Airport. Noh earned a sponsor's invite by winning the Hana Financial Group Se Ri Pak Junior Championship in April in Whittier, California.

Noh carded a four-over 78 in Thursday's opening round on the par-72, 6,207-yard layout, a respectable score on a chilly and windy day. In her first pro event, CP Women's Open in Canada in August, Noh tied for 46th among 154 at four-under 284, after rounds of 71-69-73-71.

With booming tee shots -- she can hit 270 yards and often outdrove her two playing partners, Katherine Kirk and Annie Park, on Thursday -- and exceptional ball-striking, Noh held her own against the pros. Kirk also shot a 74, and Park submitted an 82, the worst score in the field after the first round.

But Noh told Yonhap News Agency afterward she had to overcome some mental blocks early on.

Why? She simply wasn't used to seeing the kind of crooked numbers she was putting up on the board. Noh had never played this poorly all year.

"I usually don't even get to three-over in the juniors. But I reached seven-over par (after 12 holes) for the first time. It felt really weird," said Noh, who began her round on the 10th hole. She was six-over through eight holes before picking up her first birdie at the 18th. She followed that birdie with two straight bogeys.

"I was disappointed and baffled," Noh added. "I think I was putting too much pressure on myself to play well. I wasn't super nervous but just felt really different. I felt not really in the zone."

With bogeys piling up on her front nine, Noh had the kind of innocuous mishap that you may only see from a teen amateur playing in just her second professional tournament.

At the Ocean Course, golfers have to take an uphill path to get from the 15th green to the 16th tee, and then take a left turn at the top of the hill. On the right-hand side is the sixth tee.

Noh took a quick bathroom break on her way but then walked back to the sixth tee. She was near the teeing ground before her caddie waved at her and called out her name to direct her to the 16th.

Once Noh got to her correct tee, she realized she'd left her ball in the bathroom.

By the time Noh reached the 16th, Kirk and Park had already hit their drives and started walking down the fairway. Noh had to yell at them, "I am playing a new ball."

Getting lost on the way to the tee and leaving the ball behind could have led to a momentary lapse of focus for anyone, let alone a 17-year-old. But Noh seemed unfazed, as she proceeded to split the fairway with her drive that landed well past the tee shots by Kirk and Park.

As for the lost ball, Noh retrieved it when she was playing the sixth hole later in the day.

That second trip to the bathroom came in the midst of her three-birdie-in-four-holes stretch. She stiffed her second shot to the green for an easy birdie opportunity at the fourth, and drained a 33-footer for another at the sixth. Then at the seventh, a 524-yard par-5, Noh hit a hybrid to the green from 220 yards out, and two-putted for a birdie.

Yealimi Noh of the United States hits a shot during the first round of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship at Sky 72 Golf Club's Ocean Course in Incheon, 40 kilometers west of Seoul, on Oct. 11, 2018, in this photo courtesy of the tournament organizers. (Yonhap)

Wrapping up the round on a roll was enough to help Noh get her confidence back -- not that she'd lost any, her frustration over that early stretch notwithstanding.

"If I can keep the ball on fairways and not get into rough so often, I can probably shoot five-under here," Noh declared. "I think I can reach the par-5s in two. I want to play with more confidence. I think I hit maybe five fairways today (LPGA stats show she only hit three), but I didn't miss them by much."

Noh seems to have all the physical tools to compete with the pros. Her coach, Erik Stone, told Golfweek in August that in terms of physical ability and hitting shots, Noh "may be top 30 in the world right now."

Asked to assess her own ball-striking, Noh said, "It's up there (with the pros). The yardage wasn't a problem here today."

Noh is trying to follow in the footsteps of Lydia Ko, Brooke Henderson, Lexi Thompson and Michelle Wie, who all turned professional as teenagers and developed into major champions.

"Everyone eventually goes pro after they graduate, so (I) might as well just do it earlier when I am playing my best," Noh said. "If I am going to be a pro golfer, that's my job. I don't really need a degree to play golf."

Noh exudes confidence without coming across as arrogant. That seems to come from her strong awareness of the current state of her game and its boundless promise.

"This week, I just want to play the way I am supposed to," she said. "I know I can play. I just want to play my best."


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