By KURT DUSTERBERG
Five years ago, golf was a foreign concept to Sarah Bae.
So was speaking English.
When she left South Korea for the United States at age 12, Bae met her first challenge – the language barrier – head on.
“I had to adapt and learn to communicate,” she says with the no-big-deal tone of a teenager. “We were very lucky to come here and learn different things and appreciate a lot.”
The game of golf was brand new back then, but the 17-year-old’s game is almost as fluent as her command of English. In July, she won the 2011 North Carolina Trusted Choice Junior Classic, a top-tier event at Pine Needles. She carded a 69-70 at the statewide event, good for a four-stroke win in the 15-18 age group.
Bae’s accomplishments in junior golf are underscored by her unusual background. She left her parents behind in her home country to live with her aunt and uncle in Cary. When she arrived, Bae knew nothing about golf.
But when her younger brother, Eric – who came to the U.S. with his sister – took up the game, Sarah grabbed a set of clubs, too.
“We have a big backyard,” she says. “There was a mat and we would hit into it. That’s how we learned.”
Bae’s uncle, John Armstrong, has taught the kids much of what they know about the game, with an emphasis on one broad concept: You cannot buy a golf game. You’ve got to work.
Armstrong should know. He claims 20 years of experience as a PGA tour caddy, including three years each with Pat McGowan and Al Geiberger on the Champions Tour. While Armstrong says he carries a 4 handicap, he stresses another side of the game when coaching his niece.
“It’s more the mental aspect as far as the teaching goes,” he says. “I try to teach my kids to be visual.”
Like most golfers, Bae learned that golf rarely comes easily.
“It was really difficult for me at first because I didn’t understand it,” she says. “It’s getting easier as I’m playing more golf and I see how things are done. It’s a work in progress.”
But that progress has been noteworthy. She won 2010 North Carolina Junior Player of the Year honors from the Carolinas Golf Association after winning 10 of the 21 statewide junior events in which she participated. Two wins came on the Peggy Kirk Bell Girls’ Tour, and four others were part of the Tarheel Golf Tour.
So when did she realize she was becoming a pretty good golfer?
“I’m still looking for it,” says the Athens Drive High School junior. “I believe I’ve worked enough to reach this point, but I’m not good enough yet to reach the next level. I’m still working on it.”
Her uncle intends to help her get there.
“Her potential is unlimited. It’s whether she is willing to put in the time and effort,” Armstrong says. “I would say Sarah is too nice. She’s getting better. The more she plays golf, the more she gets confidence in her abilities. She will be scary when she believes in herself.”
Bae has endured growing pains with her game. Over the summer, she took part in the Women’s North and South Championship match play event at Pinehurst No. 2. When she lost her opening match, 3 & 2, Bae chalked it up as a learning experience, playing against more seasoned golfers.
“I don’t take it as a negative that I lost,” Bae says. “I learned what I can work on by playing with them and found out what I need to improve.
“You cannot control what people are going to shoot. I’m trying to be more consistent than other people. I just try to beat the golf course.”
Using that level-headed approach, she sets out to better her game.
“I don’t think I have any specialty in my game,” says Bae, who is a member at Crooked Creek Golf Club in Fuquay-Varina. “I like to chip and putt because it doesn’t take me a lot of strokes if I’m not tracking very good.”
But when it counts, Bae is usually on top of her game. In her 21 tournament appearances in 2010, she finished with a 74.2 stroke average. As her game continues to grow, college scholarship offers are likely to follow. But first things first – Bae’s junior year of high school is just getting started.
“I’m going to take my time with (a college decision),” she said. “I like to be open minded. I have two more years.”
She might be playing it cool with a college choice, but Bae is pretty forthright about her long-term golf goal.
“Hopefully, I’ll be lucky enough that I can play golf for living when I grow up. That’s what I’m aiming for.”