By Matthew Kipnis, Daily Sports Writer
Published March 27, 2014
In golf, where every inch counts, many players have supersititons Some play with low-numbered balls — one through four — because they don’t want a score higher than that. Others refuse to use a red tee, seeing it as a sign of danger.
Freshman Grace Choi is no different. But that’s OK, because they’re working for her. Choi always needs tees in her pocket. It’s not that she breaks to many of them while playing. But she feels a need to keep two tees in her pockets at all times. Even if she’s wearing shorts without pockets, she’ll find a way to carry those two tees, whether in her hair or somewhere else on her body.
Choi even fears tying her shoes during matches. If she’s playing well and her shoelaces become untied, she will leave them untied until she makes a bogey.
“I know that it’s not rational, but when you are playing well you don’t want to change anything that you are doing, even if it’s your shoelace,” Choi said. “You want to keep that same energy going through.”
These superstitions might not make sense to most people, but they seem to be working perfectly well for Choi. Not even a full season into her collegiate golfing career, she finished the fall portion of the Wolverines’ schedule as Michigan’s scoring leader with a 76.64 average. But Choi didn’t stop there, and has lowered her average by nearly a shot and a half since the start of 2014.
Though the Michigan women’s golf team’s fall schedule didn’t go as planned — the team’s highest finish was ninth — Choi was a silver lining. Her consistent play allowed her to finish as one of the Wolverines’ top two scorers in six of the team’s seven tournaments.
In Michigan’s most recent tournament at the Clover Cup Invitational in Mesa, Ariz., Choi shot a career-best 214 over the three-day tournament. She tied for second overall in a field of 86 golfers and helped the Wolverines to their best tournament finish of the year — tied for fourth.
Becoming one of just three players to score under par at the Clover Cup Invitational was no easy feat for Choi. After two superb rounds, she found herself minus-four and only one stroke behind the leader. But in the third round, she saw her play start to fall. After two days of playing under par she was plus-four through 10 in the final round.
Rather than panic, Choi focused on her own game, which allowed her to salvage the rest of the round shooting one-under in the last eight holes.
“It’s difficult mentally as I try to stay in the process and forget where I am at score-wise,” Choi said. “I wasn’t playing with the leader or the girl I was tied with at second, so I had no idea where they were at, but I knew I had to cut that down. I didn’t know it would be that close because I had no idea what the other girls were doing.”
With the runner-up finish, Choi was named Big Ten Women’s Golfer of the week for the first conference accolade of her short career — the first time a Wolverine was given the award since the fall of 2011.
“It’s pretty special,” said head coach Jan Dowling. “As my first year as a head coach, she is the first player to bring home some hardware to Ann Arbor, and that is something I will remember.”
According to Dowling, it is not uncommon in golf for a freshman to come in and become a leader from a scoring perspective. Though she’s been the team’s most consistent player this season, she has still vastly improved her game in her time at Ann Arbor.
When Choi first came to campus, Dowling noticed a few key signs that she would be a very good golfer, including her high golf IQ, positive attitude and good ball-striking ability. Choi is a constant learner of the game, and came into each practice with wide eyes, ready to learn and take in as much as she could.
“No matter what level you’re at in the game, if you’re not learning and creating new shots, you’re not getting better, and she does that,” Dowling said. “She’s always trying to learn something new, and I think that’s going to help her not only her freshman year but for her entire golf career.”
With the help of Dowling and the rest of the coaching staff, Choi has been able to improve her short game mightily. Before coming to Michigan, her chipping and pitching were inconsistent. However, with hard work this past season and offseason, Choi has created a simpler chipping and pitching swing that is more repeatable and dependable under pressure.
Choi has attributed her consistent play this past season to her improved short game, which is most evident in her last two tournaments as she chipped in for birdies on the first two holes.
“You can’t hit every green or every shot perfect, but my short game is a really good safety net,” Choi said. “You can still shoot a decent round if you can depend on your chipping and pitching.”
Not only has her short game improved, but also her drives. With strength and training conditioning coach Jon Sanderson and the rest of the staff, Choi has been able to hit the ball farther, which makes the rest of the game easier. Choi is hitting her drives about 240 yards now, a 15-yard difference from when she first got to Michigan.
With Choi’s play on the team being that of a veteran, it’s hard to imagine she is still a freshman — the only one on the team. Not only have the coaches helped her improve her game, but also her veteran teammates have helped her manage the college experience. Being the only freshman, Choi has been welcomed with open arms, allowing her to join right into the chemistry of the team.
“They have helped so much that it’s starting to feel like my golf family,” Choi said. “Because I’m the only freshman, the other eight girls only have to take care of me, so I am getting all of their attention.”
Choi mentioned senior Lauren Grogan as the biggest leader and the team mom. She helps Choi with just about everything — except tying her shoes.