Albin Choi grew up in Toronto – hockey country. And while he loves Canada’s native sport, he knew he wasn’t cut out for a career on the ice.
“I wasn’t big enough to skate as well as the other guys did,” he said.
So when other Canadian kids were lacing up skates, Choi was being fitted for a 5-iron.
“My grandparents were really big on golf, and they would take me out every weekend to play 18 holes with them,” said Choi, the sophomore star on the North Carolina State golf team. “I started around 4 or 5 years old, watching the family play. As I got older, it started to make more sense. I was getting better and I could see going somewhere with it.”
Today, Choi is more certain than ever that his “somewhere” will take him to great heights. At the NCAA Regional in Ann Arbor, Mich., in May, he captured medalist honors with a 10-under 203, earning a spot in the NCAA Championship field. He was the only player to post three rounds in the 60s – 69-66-68. He took control of the tournament with an unusual three-hole sequence in the third round. First, he carded back-to-back eagles on consecutive par-4 holes, and followed that feat with a birdie on a par-3. With three consecutive 2s on his scorecard, he took the individual lead and never relinquished it.
“To be honest, it was one of those weeks that everything kind of went my way,” Choi said. “I had a few loose shots here and there, but they always turned out OK. I made a lot of putts inside 10 feet down the stretch. I hit the right shots at the right times, and I think that’s really what got me through.”
Choi is no stranger to winning tournaments. Earlier this year, he won the Bridgestone Collegiate. Last season, he captured two individual titles on his way to becoming the unanimous selection as ACC Freshman of the Year.
Choi found his way to N.C. State by following a trail of his fellow junior players in Ontario. The Wolfpack program has a bit of a pipeline to Ontario. Back in the mid-1980s, coach Richard Sykes recruited 1984 Canadian Amateur winner Bill Swartz to the Raleigh campus. In recent years, the string of Canadian junior golfers heading to Raleigh made Choi take note.
“A lot of my friends from back home have played for coach Sykes – Matt Hill, Mitch Sutton, Brad Revell. We played in the same tournaments in the summer; we’re all from the same province. There’s no coach like him, really. I really like the facilities here at N.C. State. You can’t beat it.”
But it’s not like Choi simply showed up on the doorstep in Raleigh. Sykes had been doing his homework.
“I went to watch Mitch (Sutton) play when he was playing with the Canadian National Junior team,” Sykes said. “I spotted Albin playing with him, but he was a year or two away at the time. He was on my radar the whole time.”
By the time Choi was ready to start his collegiate career, he was a decorated junior golfer. He had won the 2010 Canadian Men’s Amateur Championship and competed in the U.S. Amateur the same year. But the thought of competing against the best college players in the ACC caused a bit of concern.
“There was a little bit of an intimidation factor, because I really didn’t know what to expect in college golf,” he said. “But I see it like a junior tournament, where everyone has run out of eligibility. Everyone’s a lot older now, and it’s pretty much the same guys you’ve been seeing for a couple years. Putting it that way, it didn’t seem intimidating. Once I got to school, I felt like I had the game to play against these guys. I knew if I kept my head in the right place, good things were going to come.”
At the age of 20, Choi has made a lot of headway with a variety of challenges. Last summer, he shot 69-68 at a U.S. Open sectional qualifier in Springfield, Ohio, missing the cut by two strokes.
“Those are great scores, but I didn’t feel I played very well,” he said. “To miss it by two, I wasn’t thinking about whether I should have made it. I was surprised I was as close as I was.”
If it sounds like Choi is his own worst critic, perhaps he is; he has every intention of making a living from the game he loves.
“The only reason I play golf is to have it as a career,” he said. “Doing something you love and being able to make it a career is something to cherish and be proud of. Ever since I picked up a club that has been my dream. My vision hasn’t really changed.”
For now, however, there is the challenge of earning a degree. Choi is not ready to leave college life behind.
“The school part gets in the way of playing golf,” said Choi, whose parents initially settled in British Columbia after coming from Seoul, South Korea. “But it’s part of the job description. You have to get that done. I definitely want to graduate. I love playing college golf.”
When he finally turns his attention to a pro career, Choi will rely on his history of strong performances in amateur and collegiate events.
“The sky is the limit,” Sykes said. “His work ethic is special. He will outwork you. You get someone with talent who will work hard – there you go. You’ve got a jewel there.”
The road to the PGA Tour is fraught with potential pitfalls. Would-be pros must prevail through qualifying school or endure the rigors of the Nationwide Tour. And it helps to be in good health and have a little bit of luck, too. But as Choi sees it, the jobs are up for grabs.
“Somebody’s got to do it — why not me?” he said confidently. “Half of these guys are going to end up playing on the Tour in the future. I’m part of that half.”