19-year-old Hannah Yun is preparing to begin her rookie season on the LPGA Tour in 2012. However, when you consider what happened the first day she began playing the game, it’s amazing that she plays golf at all. When Hannah was just seven years old her father, Changsu, took her out to a golf course in San Jose, California, to play her very first round of golf. In one of her first swings, as dad was standing a bit too close, Hannah took a big rip at the ball and accidentally hit him right in the mouth with the club, knocking out three of his teeth.
For most parents that would have been a strong clue to guide their young daughter into another sport, perhaps one where no potential weapons are employed. However, the Yuns saw a lot of natural ability in their little girl and they also saw the way she loved to play the game. So with some dental work behind him, Changsu kept taking Hannah to the golf course and watched her grow and develop as a young talent. A few years later the Yun family moved to the San Diego area. As Hannah continued to improve, her parents began signing her up to play in some junior golf events in the southern California area. Hannah started winning and winning. She also caught the eye of those in the California golfing community. Many people, including Ken Cherry, the head pro at Lomas Santa Fe Country Club, began recognizing Hannah as a true child prodigy in the game of golf.
The game of golf does not come easily for most people. Most find it very awkward to stand over a little ball and swing the club with the right technique to launch the ball into the air with any accuracy, consistency, or power. Ask just about any golfer about their earliest memories of trying to play the game. They will tell you what an ordeal it was just to begin hitting the ball squarely. For the rare few, however, the golf swing comes naturally. Hannah Yun is one of those rare few. As they say, she seemed born to play the game.
In her little girl’s mind, Hannah must have realized that as well. When she was ten she told her parents that she wanted to be a professional golfer. They signed her up for lessons with teaching pro Kip Puterbaugh, at his Aviara Golf Academy in Carlsbad. Puterbuagh was quick to recognize Hannah’s rare innate ability. As he told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a recent interview: “As a teacher this is what you look for, a chance to work with somebody with a V8 engine and make them into a racer. It’s an opportunity that doesn’t happen very often.”
Hannah’s game steadily improved under Puterbaugh’s guidance. She was becoming one of the very best young junior golfers in the United States. When she was twelve, Hannah asked her parents and they agreed to move the family to Bradenton, Florida, so that Hannah could enroll in the IMG/David Leadbetter Golf Academy with over 200 other junior student/golfers. It is considered the best training ground in the country for boy and girl golfers actively considering a future as touring pros. At the academy her skills developed rapidly. She earned many awards, including the IMG/Leadbetter Golf Academy MVP and Player of the Year, her high school MVP after winning the Florida High School State Championship, and the Sarasota-Herald Tribune Tri-County Athlete of the Year two years in a row.
Hannah was just as talented in the classroom as she was on the golf course. She skipped two grades between elementary and middle school. In middle school, she earned the Academic Achievement Award signed by President Bush and the Secretary of Education. In high school she was an A student and was inducted into the National Honors Society. She graduated high school with high honors at the age of 15, two to three years earlier than most students.
With her exceptional talent both in golf and academics, Hannah accepted a full scholarship to the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville in the fall of 2007. At just 15 years old, she became the youngest student/athlete in the history of the NCAA to play competitively in college events. While she was playing for Florida, the women’s golf team won the SEC Championship for the first time in 12 years. Hannah competed against University of Arkansas sensation Stacy Lewis for the SEC individual title, finishing in second place by one shot. The team also won the NCAA Regional Championships for the first time in the history of the program. At the end of the season Hannah, as a 15-year-old freshman, was named the MVP of the Florida women’s team and was selected as an NCAA, SEC, and Golfweek first-team All-American.
In the summer of 2008, Hannah played as an amateur in eleven events on the Duramed Futures Tour (which later became the LPGA Futures Tour and is now the Symetra Tour). There she began competing with young women pros, primarily college graduates, who were on track to make it to the LPGA. Hannah returned to the University of Florida for her sophomore year, but in the fall of 2008 she decided to withdraw from college. She had her sights set on a career on the LPGA and felt she was ready to pursue her dream. At the age of 17 she applied for and was granted a waiver by the LPGA to play as a professional on the LPGA Futures Tour, beginning in the spring of 2009. That made her the youngest golfer to ever play as a touring pro in the United States. It seemed like just a matter of time before she would graduate to the LPGA.
However it was in 2009 that her meteoric rise in golf began to level off. The success and victories that came so easily during her junior golf years and brief college career did not materialize. She was very competitive on the “Futures,” but she usually had trouble putting three very good rounds together in events. She had several top 10 finishes in ’09, and last year, but she never won a tournament or finished high enough on the tour’s money list to earn her way onto the LPGA Tour. She worked as hard as any player on the tour, putting in countless hours on the driving ranges and putting greens. She got instruction from several different coaches, but nothing seemed to be working.
About a year ago she came close to giving up the game altogether. She had lost her love for golf. It appeared she was “burning out” and she was still just a teenager. “My whole life I had defined myself as a golfer,” she told the San Diego Union-Tribune in a recent article about her. “To think about not playing was against everything I wanted to do as a kid. It was scary. But I told my parents, ‘I’m unhappy. I don’t want to do this anymore.’“
A family trip to her parent’s homeland of South Korea may have saved her career. While in Korea she did not pick up a golf club for three months and she spent close to two months living in a Buddhist temple with several other teenagers. Hannah and her parents are devout Christians and while she may have picked an unusual place to get away from it all, the time with the Buddhist monks seemed to work wonders on her. Her time at the temple was filled with yoga, meditation, martial arts, archery, and community service. She says she had the time to reflect on who she really was and she learned how to enjoy life. As an overachiever whose young life was dedicated to becoming one of the best golfers in the world she had never really learned how to just have fun.
Hannah also made another big discovery while in Korea. She still loved the game of golf. She still wanted to pursue her dream. She was anxious to get back at it. This past summer, Hannah began working again with her childhood coach, Kip Puterbaugh. Together they were able to rediscover and improve upon the natural swing that she had as a child. Hannah then set her sights on preparing herself for the LPGA Q School process. With her game becoming more solid under Puterbaugh’s guidance, Hannah competed in the second stage of LPGA Q School. In the four-day event, held in September in Venice, Florida, Hannah finished tied for 8th place in a field of 230 players. She shot 5 under par over the four days and easily advanced to the all-important final stage of LPGA Q School.
Many veteran LPGA players will tell you that the final stage of Q School remains the most intense and nerve-wracking tournament in which they have ever competed. The grueling five-day event is held in early December on the Champions and Legends courses at LPGA International in Daytona Beach, Florida. Only the top 20 finishers earn their “full status” LPGA card for the upcoming season. It is the ticket to “the big time” in women’s professional golf. For the next year, at least, they will be competing with the best women golfers in the world on the world’s biggest stage. The next 20 finishers at Q School earn “partial status” on the tour, but that only gets them into a few LPGA events. All of the 140 players in the field, including many current LPGA players trying to re-earn their tour status, are desperate to finish in the top 20. It is the path to fame and fortune in women’s professional golf.
Hannah Yun came to the final stage in Daytona full of confidence. The week before Q School she played in a mini tour event on one of the Q School courses. She shot 9 under par over the three day event (69-69-69-207), finishing in 5th place in a field of 70 players, most of whom would be among her competitors at Q School the following week. However, the first round at Q School did not go as planned. Hannah shot a discouraging score of 4 over par 76, and she was well down in the middle of the pack after the first day. Her father had caddied for her that day and believed that he may have placed too much pressure on Hannah to perform, and she had not been relaxed out on the course. He and Hannah asked a family friend to caddy for her over the next four rounds of the event. (author’s note: I am the family friend who caddied for Hannah) The plan worked. Hannah settled down and went on to shoot 74-71-72-71 over the final four days, in very windy conditions. She moved up the leader board each day. In the end, her combined five-day score of 4 over par was good enough to earn her a tie for 15th place and her full LPGA card for the upcoming 2012 LPGA season.
So, at just 19 years of age this former child prodigy has achieved her goal. Hannah will be teeing it up next year with Yani Tseng, Paula Creamer, Suzann Pettersen and the rest of the top women players in the world. She will now see just how far her natural talent and years of dedication and hard work can take her. Her parents will be smiling broadly when they watch their daughter compete in her very first LPGA event. When he smiles, Changsu Yun may often think about the three natural teeth he sacrificed for Hannah’s golf game. There is no doubt he considers it a small sacrifice now that Hannah is living her dream.
About the Author: Dave Andrews is a Harvard-educated former television news reporter. Dave is an avid golfer who has become a fan of the Duramed Futures Tour and is the author of Pops and Sunshine, a novel and screenplay about life on tour. His home course in New Hampshire is annually the site of one of the tour’s events.