There was a time when golf was a struggle for Phillip Choi.
He wondered if a career in golf, which he had decided was a legitimate possibility at 14 years old, was going to pan out.
“I kept working, and I didn’t really see results,” he said.
Those worries went away when he started playing well again at 17, winning two consecutive individual and team state championships at Winter Park’s Circle Christian School.
To talk to Choi now is to get the sense that struggling at golf is a concept buried in the past. It’s not something he immediately talks about sitting on a couch in the clubhouse of Mark Bostick Golf Course. With his Beats headphones, the ones endorsed by Dr. Dre, around his neck and his laid-back persona on full display, Choi is optimistic.
His optimism is well-deserved. Choi hasn’t finished outside of the top-10 at a tournament since Chicago’s Olympia Fields Invitational, the first tournament of the 2010-2011 season.
The sophomore has picked up eight top-10 finishes after having only one during his freshman year.
Heading into this weekend’s SEC Championship in St. Simon’s Island, Ga., Choi finds himself as one of the most consistent golfers in the SEC. He said that the differences between his freshman and sophomore seasons are fairly simple.
After a disappointing finish in Chicago, Choi changed his mindset on the course.
“I go into tournaments, and I just think that a top 10 is my ultimate goal,” he said. “I’ve grown up and just stayed patient. Usually I’d start chasing birdies instead of just letting it happen.”
Head coach Buddy Alexander agreed with Choi’s feeling of increased maturity.
“Grown up is a good way to put it because [Choi has] grown up and matured a lot as a person and as a player,” Alexander said.
Alexander credits Choi for being one of the best ball-strikers the University of Florida has ever had. Clean contact is something he worked on extensively over the off-season, and an aspect of the game that Alexander said breeds more consistency than any other.
The work wasn’t new for Choi. He has been trying to improve his golf game since he was 5 years old. His father owned a driving range, and it was only natural for the young Choi to pick up a golf club.
At 7, he won his first junior tournament at Palma Ceia Golf Club in Tampa.
“From there on, my dad kind of saw what I had, like potential,” he said.
Choi moved to Orlando when he was 9 and began playing a lot of junior golf. His evolving golf interest paralleled the dominant “Tiger Slam” portion of Tiger Woods’ career.
“He was probably my idol when I was growing up,” Choi said. “I was just like, ‘I wonder if I could ever be that good.’”
At Circle Christian, he played alongside Jhared Hack, who currently plays golf professionally, for two years.
When it came time for college, Choi was not expecting to attend Florida. He had shown interest in Florida State, UCF and Georgia Tech, by the time Alexander saw him play.
Once Florida showed interest, the search was quickly over.
“I took a couple visits here and fell in love with it and wanted to commit,” he said.
By freshman standards, Choi had a solid first year at Florida. He won SEC All-Freshman honors but admitted to not being entirely comfortable at college until his spring semester.
“It was definitely a different experience, kind of a new beginning,” Choi said. “I wasn’t really used to this waking up at 6 to work out and then having class and then practicing all day and then going to tutoring.”
Alexander called Choi’s initial troubles a common case of time management issues that often get corrected after an athlete’s freshman year.
Now as a sophomore, he has the foundation built for an elite college career, a college career that he plans on fully completing. Choi is already 16th on Florida’s all-time top-10 finish list after playing in 19 tournaments, and he will have more than two seasons to build on the statistic.
He won his first collegiate tournament last month across a windy three days at Sawgrass Country Club in Ponte Vedra Beach.
“I’m just going to let the college thing play out,“ Choi said. “College has really helped me over the last couple years, and I feel I can only get better. Once my four years are up, I feel like I’ll be ready for the pro world.”
Make no mistake about it, even though he is a criminology major, Choi doesn’t plan on straying far from golf in his future. He plans on playing professionally, but said he would consider becoming a teaching pro or a coach if playing doesn’t work out.
He’s looking to play in some big amateur events over the summer. One day after the NCAA championships, he’ll be playing in a sectional qualifier for the U.S. Open and the Palmer Cup the day after.
“I feel like golf has been my whole life, and I don’t think it’d be right for me to just go off and do something else,” he said.
This is Phillip Choi
Relaxed and talkative, he describes himself as the “pretty funny guy” that doesn’t take things too seriously. He said people don’t expect him to be a reader, but he loves books. When asked what kind of books, he thinks for a second.
“I like sci-fi,” he said with a grin. “I don’t really tell people that too often.”
Gator Country reporter Bryan Holt can be reached at BryanHolt@GatorCountry.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/BryanHoltGC.