On Quest to Go Pro, Yaelimi Noh Swaps Class Time for Tee Time
At age 16, Noh just won the American Junior Golf Association Girls Championship and is ranked tenth in the world. The ball usually goes where she wants it to.
Demian Becerra/Holy Mountain
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Yealimi Noh stands on the edge of a manicured tee box as a man in white basketball shoes clumsily slashes at a golf ball like it just insulted his mother. The ball slices violently and disappears.
Noh smiles. Her swing is pure. Unhurried and elegant. And amidst divot-makers whose improvisational, muscle-twanging strokes often crumble before impact, it's even reassuring. "I've shanked it a few times at a tournament," she says sheepishly. "It was really bad."
Not today. On this bright afternoon at Penmar, a public golf course in Venice, California, near the Santa Monica airport, her backswing reaches into a robin's egg sky, slices through a weak ocean breeze, and meets the ball with a flat thwack. Noh's swing is a precise instrument. She could take down the prop planes taking off above her if given the right—or wrong—driver.
She's 16 years old, the tenth-ranked female junior golfer in the world, and the ball usually goes where she wants it to. In September, against competitors that she'll likely face in college, the LPGA's qualifying school, and the LPGA Tour, she won the American Junior Golf Association Girls Championship. Her three-day score: a seven-under-par 209.
Noh began golfing at six or seven years old, picking up the sport alongside her father and uncle. They started hitting balls, so she did, too.
"Who's better now?" I ask jokingly.
"We used to be the same, but I'm better now," she says with a laugh.
Born to South Korean immigrants Brian and Kim, Noh was raised in Concord, California, a working- and middle-class bedroom community where her family owns a sushi restaurant, Happy Roll. (On Yelp, Kathy C. calls Kim a "sweetheart," and Pegah M. notes, "After eating there you will find out that the name of this restaurant is genuinely [a] match with your satisfaction.") Brian grew up fishing on Jeju, a subtropical island off the coast of mainland Korea, and is the sushi chef. Kim, a former airline stewardess from Seoul, helps manage the restaurant. Yealimi, who typically visits Korea once per year, works at the front of the house when her schedule permits.
For Kim, who's grown tired of the smell of raw fish, her daughter's tournaments have become quasi-vacations. "Every day I'm always working—work and golf. When she has a golf tournament, I go with her," she says. "I get some fresh air, get rid of some stress." Later, while Yealimi pose for photos, sand wedge aloft, Kim peers anxiously at her cell phone from behind glamorous, supersized sunglasses. She shows me her screen: live black-and-white security footage of two figures in a kitchen, one Brian, the other the health inspector. By Kim's metrics, a sunny Wednesday afternoon in Los Angeles spent quietly monitoring both her daughter and her restaurant is relaxing.
For Yealimi, though, this is life. Until this year, she was enrolled at Carondelet High School, an all-girls Catholic school, but, after absences piled up and her performance on the course suffered, she withdrew and began a home study program. "Home-schooling has helped a lot with my game, and I've been able to focus on parts that I needed to work on," she says. "I think I made the right choice. It was definitely a difference from last year. In 2015, I had my first AJGA win at an invitational; I was playing well, I was ranked 20th or something, [but] after that, last year, I got into a slump or whatever. This year, starting in summer, it's gotten a lot better."
Though she misses her school friends, the results—borne from long hours on the course with a private coach, Erik Stone, who was an acolyte of Tiger Woods' former coach Hank Haney—have been excellent. In July, Noh finished second at the Junior PGA Championship. In August, she was part of the United States team that won the biennial Junior Solheim Cup. (The senior event is the women's equivalent of the Ryder Cup.) And, in September, she won the AJGA Girls Championship, overcoming a double-bogey in her final round to win by four strokes. When I ask about the seven she shot on the 13th hole, Noh gives off the impression that she was so focused on winning the setback didn't even register with her. She says, "I think I played [my] best the last day, so…." She's right, of course—she was four under par.
In a solitary, cerebral sport, tournaments are a social occasion for Noh and her opponents. "Everyone's super nice, like, very outgoing," she says. "You don't feel excluded, especially at tournaments.… Every golfer has that respect and maturity to get along well with everyone. We can relate to each other—missing school, having to go practice."
These young women lead uncommon lives: they're absent for weeks of school (if they're not already home-schooled), travel to tournaments in exotic places like Des Moines and Scottsdale, and share the laser focus of teenagers talented enough to see the world, but who have yet to experience the sometimes excruciating temptations and richness of adulthood.
Like most elite young athletes, Noh's cohort exists in a state of nebulous amateurism by virtue of their age and abilities: they're near-full-time athletes who, if they want to attend and play at an American university, must meet the NCAA's byzantine academic requirements and cannot accept payments from tournaments, agents, or sponsors. In lieu of cash, Noh accepts "support" from Titleist, receiving hats, gloves, balls, shoes, and clubs; she earns no income from tournaments, only points toward her rankings. Were she to receive money—an explicit acknowledgment of her professional potential—she'd sacrifice her college eligibility. While it's less seedy than basketball's summertime circuit—and anything short of an over-capacity opium den would be—the AJGA is a clearinghouse for recruiters and sponsors courting the next pro golf sensation.
While college is not a prerequisite for aspiring LPGA players—only about half of the Americans on the tour's top 100 players attended—those who commit, Noh tells me, do so early. "A lot of people are committing eighth grade or freshman year," she says, which put her on the older side when she committed to UCLA as a rising junior. The duration of her time in Westwood, set to begin in the fall of 2019, will be determined by how well she golfs; the better she plays, the shorter her stay. Noh can't say how long she thinks she'll be in school, but her goal is explicit: professional golf.
"I think that's everyone's dream," she tells me with a laugh.
I ask, "Can you imagine a future where you're not a pro golfer?"
"I think I could, but I definitely don't want to."