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After ‘driver yips,’ back injury, N.Y. Choi returns with strong start at Founders

PHOENIX – They are her “American mammas.”

That’s what Na Yeon Choi calls Hall of Famers Meg Mallon and Beth Daniel.

With Choi’s world-class game going sideways a few years ago, and a slump worsening as she tried to play through back pain, she didn’t know where to turn for help.

She was once considered one of the best drivers in the women’s game with control that helped her win the 2012 U.S. Women’s Open, but in the middle of the slump, Choi didn’t know where her tee shots were going anymore.

“I think I had the driver yips,” Choi said.

Choi, 31, found the beginning of real help three years ago in a Thanksgiving trip to South Florida that she believes led to Thursday’s strong start at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup. She found sound advice from Mallon and Daniel in a visit set up by her caddie at the time, Meaghan Francella.

“I can’t say enough how much I appreciate the support they’ve given me,” Choi said. “I love them.”

After stepping away from the game for 11 months to heal body, mind and spirit, Choi made her return with a giant smile, posting a 7-under-par 65 in the first round at Wildfire Golf Club. She knows it’s just one round. She knows she can’t make too much of a single round, but she sure felt good returning to the tour.

“I’m just happy to be back playing,” Choi said.

Mallon and Daniel persuaded Choi to do something really hard: They talked her into walking away from the game for nearly year.

“They always said, ‘If your body isn’t ready, mentally you can’t be ready,’” Choi said.

It took Choi some time to get up the nerve to walk away, but she finally did so last April. She’s playing on a medical extension this year. She has 11 events to earn $194,691 to win back status as a top-80 money winner.

Full-field scores from the Bank of Hope Founders Cup

Choi said a FaceTime conversation finally convinced her. She said Mallon and Daniel connected after they saw an Instagram post Choi put up, a sad update about the state of her game.

“They asked how I was doing, and I said I was OK,” Choi said. “They told me I was lying to them.

“I started crying. I told them I was having a really hard time deciding whether to walk away. I was still working hard on my game, but my back was still bothering me, and mentally I was struggling. It was just a hard decision to make, to step away.”

Mallon was pleased to see Choi back on tour and feeling good again.

“It’s just nice to see her have a good day, because she hasn’t had many in a long time,” Mallon told in a telephone interview.

Choi, a nine-time LPGA winner, moved to No. 2 in the world the year she won the U.S. Women’s Open. She has now slipped to No. 486.

“Usually, when you see these declines in confidence, it has come with an injury,” Mallon said. “That was certainly the case with Na Yeon. She was trying to change her swing, to work around things, which never works well.

“I told her it takes a long time to lose your confidence, and it takes a long time to get out of it, if you have the patience. But you have to take baby steps. The first one is getting yourself healthy. So, she was truly one of the only ones who listened. So many players just want to get back out there, and they don’t listen to their bodies.”

When Choi finally walked away last year, she made a hard break. She took a 17-day vacation to Eastern Europe. She visited Germany, Hungary, Austria and Croatia. She sent Mallon and Daniel photos of her visiting castles in the mountains.

“They said they were jealous,” Choi said. “I read books, I listened to music. It was a different life.”

Choi got healthier, rehabbing and working out to strengthen her core. She didn’t start playing again until three months ago.

Fellow South Korean Jenny Shin was waiting outside scoring Thursday when Choi signed for her round of seven birdies and no bogeys. She doused Choi with a glass of champagne. Choi’s return, as much as her score, was something Shin wanted to celebrate.

“I was like, ‘Wow, it’s her first tournament back after 11 months and she’s on the leaderboard,’” Shin said. “To go through what she went through, it’s very difficult.

“I saw her name climbing the leaderboard today and it really motivated me. It’s extremely impressive.”

Mallon hopes there are more good days ahead for Choi.

“She’s just a neat kid,” Mallon said. “She’s a great spirit, just a good soul to be around. You feel as good to be around her as anyone out there. So, you’re cheering for her, because you don’t want to see somebody with character like that struggle.”

Choi doesn’t know where Thursday’s round will lead, but she relished her return to tour life.

“I’m just happy to be walking the fairways with friends,” she said.