INCHEON, SOUTH KOREA | From a distance, she looks like any other tour player who isn’t having a great week.
Through the first two rounds of the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship, Yealimi Noh hit it just as far as any of her fellow competitors. She found more fairways and greens on Friday than three-time LPGA winner Katherine Kirk, who struggled with her ballstriking. And Noh’s carriage and demeanor fit well in a professional setting. She didn’t put up good numbers, 76-74 in the first two rounds, but she didn’t embarrass herself either. It’s not until you see her up close that you realize this 17-year-old Californian is still a young girl.
Noh, who won the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship in July and was on the winning U.S. Junior Ryder Cup team in France last month, earned a spot in the LPGA KEB Hana Bank Championship by virtue of winning Se Ri Pak’s American Junior Golf Association event.
“That was one of the main reasons I played that AJGA event,” Noh told me after her second round at Sky72 Golf Club on Friday. “Last year and most of this year I only played invitationals in the AJGA. But because of the exemption into this tournament, that’s why I played that (Se Ri Pak) tournament.”
Her parents are Korean so Noh wanted to get back to the country where she used to vacation as a young child. “I haven’t been back in, like, seven years,” she said. “So, I really wanted to get back and, obviously, I wanted to play in an LPGA event. It’s my first time, like, playing golf in Korea. The whole environment is really cool.”
She is a delightful young lady who appeared to be making great decisions right up to the moment I asked her about her future plans.
“I was going to UCLA but I decommitted in June,” she said. “I’m going to turn pro sometime soon and do Q-School next year. Until then, just get ready for that.”
That’s a mistake. And not a locking-the-keys-in-your-car mistake. The kind you regret for years, maybe decades. Ask Alison Lee, who isn’t playing this week in the Hana Bank, a tournament she lost in a playoff two years ago, because she’s starting the second stage of Q-School. Lee chose to go to Q-School in 2014 during her third semester at UCLA just to see how she stacked up. When she won it, she felt compelled to turn pro, a decision she told me she regrets.
Lee stayed in Bel Air and earned her degree while playing a full tour schedule. In 2015, she even roomed with Bronte Law, the English standout who’s now on the LPGA but was competing for UCLA at the time, while playing well enough to be on the Solheim Cup team. But Lee missed being a Bruin. She missed the opportunity to make mistakes on someone else’s dime, to suffer her growing pains in a genteel college environment with coaches and tutors and mentors there to help.
As Lee and others will tell you, the tour will be here when college is done. Golf isn’t football or basketball where the average career is four years. Golfers ply their trade for decades.
“What’s the rush?” two-time major winner Stacy Lewis has said to me. “The experience gained in college is invaluable. And it’s never about the golf (on the LPGA). The golf is the least of it. It’s about traveling the world, being on your own, eating, training, staying in hotels, making a living, paying a caddie, having people depend on you financially. That’s a lot of pressure for a teenager. Too much.”
High school players look at Brooke Henderson, Lydia Ko and Lexi Thompson, all of whom turned pro as teenagers, and say, why not me? The answer is simple: Henderson, Ko and Thompson are more than outliers, they’re unicorns. For every Ko, there are scores of kids who turn pro too soon, a decision they eventually regret.
“It’s not exactly 100 percent certain (when I’ll turn pro)” Noh said. “It might be after this event or early next year. I’m probably not going to play the (U.S. Women’s) Open (for which she is exempt because of her U.S. Girls’ Junior title) or the Augusta (National Women’s Amateur) tournament. I obviously want to go to the Open and the Masters tournament. That would be awesome, but it looks like it’s not going to happen.”
That’s the thing about being 17: Decisions like who to take to prom are indistinguishable in scope from whether or not to go to college or turn pro. Life hasn’t dealt enough consequences for you to take proper care.
Hopefully, Noh is getting counsel from those close to her. And from those who know what lies ahead.