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What pressure? Na Yeon Choi smiles her way to Safeway lead with opening 65

NORTH PLAINS - Na Yeon Choi burst into the LPGA's upper echelon last year. In the process, she created a lot of expectations.

On Friday, the 23-year-old from Seoul, South Korea burst into the first-round lead at the 40th Safeway Classic. Afterward, she seemed very comfortable with - and almost oblivious to - any pressure her opening 65, 6-under-par, might bring.

"After last year, I had a lot of pressure on myself in Korea. Sponsors, media, they wanted better results," Choi said. "When I started this year, my goal was (to play) better than last year. Too much, maybe. So I changed the goal during the season. I met (with) my mental coach, and we talked about my goals and how I am doing. I think I tried too much to make better results or control results."

Now, she said, "my goal is to just play really happy, play with a smile."

Choi had a lot to smile about as she toured Pumpkin Ridge's Ghost Creek course. She took advantage of possibly easier conditions in the morning and built a two-shot lead on veteran Grace Park. And Choi gained a three-shot edge on four players, including World Golf Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak, 32, of South Korea and 24-year-old Swede Anna Nordqvist, who played the final eight holes in 4-under.

Choi sank a 12-foot birdie putt on No. 2 and then made seven birdies in a row on holes 5 through 11 with putts from 15 to 20 feet, as she stormed to 8-under. But a three-putt for double bogey on the 18th brought her back nearer to the field in the $1.5 million tourney. She missed the green on the par-4 final hole and then needed three putts from about 10 feet.

"I'd like to go back to the 18th hole,' she said, 'but I'm really satisfied today."

Park, also born in Seoul, started well, too. She birdied four of the first six holes and holed some key par-saving putts.

"My putting was really good," she said.

Other than that, "nothing fantastic," the 32-year-old Park said. "It was kind of boring golf."

Not so boring for a once highly touted player who has struggled in recent years and with injuries to her back.

"Right now, I'm as healthy as I've been in 10 years," she said.

Choi indicated that one factor in her hot round was the opportunity to play with "my best friend," Song-Hee Kim.

"I met her when I was 11, and we grew up together," Choi said. "A lot of times we had the same coach in Korea, and last year, too, same trainer, same mental coach (in Orlando). We really know each other, so I was very comfortable to play with her."

The 54-hole tournament continues Saturday and concludes Sunday. The first group tees off Saturday at 7:15 a.m., and the leaders (Choi, Park and Ashli Bunch, who shot 68) will start at 2:21 p.m.

The list of potential challengers who are under-par after 18 holes includes Stacy Lewis, a 2011 major champion (Kraft Nabisco), and always-dangerous Suzann Pettersen from Norway. Both shot 2-under 69, as did Wendy Ward and Jimin Kang.

The seven-player group at 70 includes defending champion Ai Miyazato of Japan, World Golf Hall of Famer Karrie Webb and Brittany Lang.

World No. 1 Yani Tseng, Brittany Lincicome, Paula Creamer and Jiyai Shin are among those at 72.

Cristie Kerr, who tied for second at the Safeway Classic a year ago, opened with a 73. Choi's best friend, Kim, also shot 73.

Juli Inkster and Michelle Wie each finished at 74.

Choi spoke efficiently in English as she described the state of her game to the media. She has been traveling this year with a language tutor.

"I play in America, so I think I have to speak English well," she said, "and then I want a little more connection with the fans, American fans."

Choi won the Vare Trophy in 2010 for having the tour's low scoring average and led the tour in money earnings. She won four times and tied for second at Ghost Creek last year, carding a 9-under 207 (par was 72 and is now 71). Miyazato won by two shots.

"The greens are faster than last year," Choi said.

Also, with the 9th hole now a par-4 instead of a par-5 and the 10th playing longer from a back tee, "I think this year (the course) is more difficult," Choi said.