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Choi’s father/caddie, says good-bye to bag

07/20/2015, 12:00am EDT
By BY DAVE HACKENBERG BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST
Choi’s father/caddie, says good-bye to bag

Chella Choi and her father and caddy Ji Yeom Choi assess her putt on hole No. 18 during the fourth and final round of the Marathon Classic Sunday. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

When his daughter's nine-foot par putt to force a Marathon Classic playoff went dead center on the 18th green Sunday, Ji Yeon Choi pumped his fist in the air, and walked toward the golf bag with two thumbs up.

When Chella Choi's tap-in for par won the tournament on the same green maybe 15 minutes later, Ji Yeon didn't know exactly what to do.

So he cried.

The father has been the daughter's caddie for almost eight full years.

He has wanted to quit since the first round of the first tournament he ever worked.

Chella wouldn't let him.

Her dad was at her side for one year on the Symetra Tour. Then she earned her LPGA Tour card before the 2009 season and asked him to continue.

“No,” he said.

“One more tournament ... one more tournament,” she kept saying.

“No ... no,” he kept saying.

Chella won the weekly argument, and on Sunday at Highland Meadows they both won.

“He's always wanted to retire,” Chella said. “But I always wanted him with me for my first win.”

Sunday was retirement day. Or, at least, it was the day he could finally announce his retirement with some conviction.

“Yeah, yeah,” Ji Yeon said. “That's it. I'm very happy.”

The elder Choi was a national policeman in South Korea for 21 years and retired at the age of 48.

Then he picked up Chella's bag. And now he's ready to put it down.

“Too heavy,” he said, making his shoulders sag to illustrate.

“Ah ... I don't know,” Chella said. “I'm not sure. I know I promised, but we'll talk later.”

Ji Yeon didn't look like a man in a talking mood.

He hedged a little and said he knew it would take awhile for his daughter to find the right, new caddie.

“Maybe after Evian,” he said, referring to a major championship in France, Sept. 10-13. “That should be [long] enough.”

The Choi relationship was a feel-good story on a day that good feelings figured to go out the window for both of them on the 72nd hole of regulation play — the par-5 18th — where Chella pulled her tee shot left into a grove of trees.

The problem for the standing-room only crowd filling the sky boxes and bleachers around the 18th green is that you can't see what's going on until golfers get to the top of the hill, the tee-shot landing area, for what most presumed was Choi's second shot. But she was actually hitting her third shot. Then came a chip from 90 yards that landed nine feet from the cup.

When it went in for what many thought was a tournament-winning birdie, hundreds of fans rose and started to leave. But it was for par — matched by Ha Na Jang for an identical 14-under-par total — and tournament officials quickly announced that there would be a playoff and most fans sat back down.

On the playoff hole, again No. 18, Choi and Jang both hit perfect drives and perfect second shots. Choi's chip from 87 yards wasn't the greatest, checking up 25 feet short of the hole. And then Jang went for the jugular.

She launched a high, aggressive chip from 85 yards that had the flag covered during the ball's entire flight. But it was long, did not check up, and rolled off the crown of the green and down into snarly rough.

Jang violated one of golf's biggest no-nos. Never short-side yourself. With the pin right in front of her and little green to work with, she saw her ensuing chip run 12 feet past.

Choi putted from 25 feet to within eight inches, marked her ball, and the pressure was squarely on Jang. She pulled her putt left, Chella tapped in, and she and her father both started crying.

“We've waited a long time for this moment,” Ji Yeon said, sunglasses hiding the tears.

They didn't have to wait too long on Sunday.

The tournament ended at 2:30 after an almost unprecedented early start — the first groups went off both Nos. 1 and 10 tees at 7 a.m., and the leaders were teeing off by 9:01 — dictated by an unfavorable weather forecast.

Saturday's midround weather delay covered the entire broadcast window on the Golf Channel, so no live golf was shown.

Hoping to avoid the same thing Sunday, the tournament was started early, taped, and shown later on TV.

So Chella Choi's win was there, in its entirety, for the world to enjoy.

And, at the end, if the world was watching, they saw a grown man cry and prepare to ride off into the sunset.

Happy retirement day!

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.

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Ji Yeon Choi, who caddied for his daughter Chella Choi , holds the trophy after Chella's win in the 2015 Marathon Classic. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

Ji Yeon Choi, who caddied for his daughter Chella Choi , holds the trophy after Chella's win in the 2015 Marathon Classic. BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

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Tag(s): Pro  Golf  Dave Hackenberg  Marathon Classic