I started golf at age nine. My father loved the game and took me to a local driving range in Korea where I spent many hours hitting balls. Even at home, I swung a club all the time in the house. But golf wasn’t my only sport. It wasn’t even my first one.
By the time I picked up the club for the first time, I was already advanced in taekwondo. My father is a grand master who ran a martial arts studio near our home. He taught hundreds of people, including me. By the age of five, I was spending time with Dad working on numerous techniques, learning the physical discipline and artistry of taekwondo. By age 12, I was a third-degree black belt.
Martial arts taught me many things that made me a better golfer. The physicality of taekwondo translated well into the motions of the golf swing. Flexibility, leverage, balance, speed in the right spot, and controlling yourself as you strike an object: these are all crossover disciplines. Knowing your body and understanding the importance of being in the right position at the right time are imperative in breaking a board with your foot as well as in hitting a driver into the fairway. By learning one, you appreciate the other.
Taekwondo also emphasizes bringing all muscles to bear on a strike, concentrating your area of impact into as small an area as possible. The same is true in golf where you use every muscle and lever to bring as much controlled force as possible into the back of a stationary ball.
What I didn’t appreciate at the time were all the other lessons that my dad taught me. For example, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t perform in front of a crowd. In taekwondo, whether in a series of tests or exhibitions, I was always challenged in front of my peers, my instructors and spectators. So, when I drew a crowd in golf, I already knew the feeling.
More than any other gift, though, my father taught me that the biggest opponent I would ever face, in sports and in life, was fear. In martial arts, the person attacking you is your foe. But your enemy is fear. Dad would always say, “Despite your instincts, you have to run toward that which you fear the most. You must face your opponent. You might lose a fight, just as you might lose a golf tournament. But you must never lose to fear.”
By my teenaged years, I had devoted myself fulltime to golf. But I still wasn’t sure I wanted to play competitively. My nerves weren’t great in tournaments. No matter how much I employed the techniques I’d learned in taekwondo – breathing, focus, control – I let the big moments overwhelm me. In my first year of high school, Dad pulled me aside and said, “Sei Young, you have to decide what you want to do. If you want to play golf for fun, that’s fine. But you will need to devote yourself to school so you can find another career path. If you want to be a competitive golfer, that’s fine, too. But you must overcome your nerves and learn to perform under pressure.”
I knew that my parents would support me either way. And that was all I needed. I poured myself into golf. At age 16, I became the youngest-ever winner of the Korean Women’s Amateur Championship.
Two years later, I turned professional and played the Korean LPGA Tour where I won five times. Two of those wins came in playoffs, where I was able to control my nerves and defeat my fears.
Then I qualified for the LPGA Tour in 2015, which presented a new set of anxieties. I arrived in America thinking I knew enough English to get by, at least for a while. Rarely have I been so wrong. I couldn’t understand anyone. I couldn’t read a sign; couldn’t order food; couldn’t watch television or find a book to read. Local rules sheets were useless and the instructions from officials went right past me. I nodded as if I understood what was being said. But in truth, I had no idea.
After the first event of my rookie year in Ocala, Florida, where I didn’t play well, I phoned my dad and said, “I think this was a mistake. Everything here is so hard. I can’t understand anything going on around me. Maybe I should come home and make a career on the KLPGA.”
To his credit, Dad listened without interrupting me. Then he said, “Are you afraid?”
I didn’t answer at first. I knew what he meant. Then he said, “Why don’t you give it one more week. See how you do. Then we’ll talk again.”
The next week, the LPGA Tour played the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic at the Ocean Course on Paradise Island. That February Sunday, in a fierce wind, I shot 68 to finish 14-under par, good enough to land in a playoff with Ariya Jutanugarn and Sun-Young Yoo, which I won. Two months later, I chipped in on the final hole of the LOTTE Championship in Hawaii to force a playoff with Inbee Park. Then I hit the best 8-iron of my life, a shot that one-hopped into the hole for an eagle on the first extra hole. It was my second win in my first four months on the LPGA Tour.
My English did not improve overnight. I still had trouble checking into a hotel and reading a restaurant menu. But I no longer feared my decision. I had found my home on the LPGA Tour.
I was honored to be the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year in 2015. And in 2020, I captured my first major championship, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. I also won the Pelican Women’s Championship in Florida, a title I will defend this week. And I captured the Rolex LPGA Player of the Year award. Throughout it all, I have remembered my father’s words.
Run toward your fear, knowing that you will never catch it. Because fear always vanishes in the face of the bold.