LAKE BUENA VISTA, FLORIDA | She forgets how good she is. When you look at the 25-player LPGA Tour field at this week’s Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions – an elite group top to bottom – 10 players (not counting Annika Sorenstam, who is in the celebrity division) have major championship trophies at home. Only four have won multiple majors. Throw into the mix a victory at the Korean Women’s Open, arguably the toughest non-LPGA title to capture, and that number dwindles to one: In Gee Chun, who has won opens in her home country (South Korea) and her adopted country (the United States), as well as in France at the Evian Championship, a country she loves to visit.
But in the past, even as late as December at the CME Group Tour Championship, she didn’t believe. Chun, as outstanding a player as she and as popular a figure as she has become, has consistently struggled with doubt; consistently battled the demons of depression and the internal questions of self-worth. Was she good enough as a golfer? Was she good enough as a person? Her friends knew the answer. They told her. But the wall between hearing and believing is often impenetrable.
Now, for the first time in several years, the tension appears to be melting. The smile is not forced. The eyes, so often pinched in the vise of sadness, are bright again. And, for the first time, she admits that the words she said before about being better were for her, not us.
“I was lying,” she said, although that admonition was a little harsh. Her English is brilliant given that she could barely say “hello” five years ago. But nuance in a second language takes decades, if it is ever perfected at all. “I mean, I didn’t mean to lie to you in a bad way,” she said later in an attempt to explain. “I was wishing it to be true, so I was saying I was good to try to make it true. But I was not perfect. I was not ready to play golf again with great condition. I said I was almost back, but I was not.”
Those who have followed Chun know exactly what she means. “I couldn't enjoy playing last year, even like the last couple of years. I’ve had a little mood problem, like my mood goes up and down a little bit. But I’m much better now than I was the last couple of years. I can focus. I can enjoy playing on the course. That helps a lot.”
After her last victory, at the 2018 KEB HanaBank Championship in Incheon, South Korea, the week after playing on the victorious Korean team at the UL International Crown about 20 minutes away, Chun wept like a newborn. And in many ways, she was a new person with a world ahead of her, and in desperate need of comfort and support.
You don’t get that sense anymore. The words are a similar tenor as a year ago, and the year before that. “I try to keep listening to what my mind says,” she said. “I keep talking with my coach and my mental trainer. We work really well. Now I can say I’m almost there. That's why I can play better on the course.” But the difference in the delivery is like night and day. Her body language is more confident than ever. She’s always been approachable. Now, she approaches you, an old friend who has returned from a difficult trip.
She now owns a house in America. “I bought a house in Dallas a couple of weeks ago because Sei Young (Kim) lives in this community and when we played the VOA Classic, she sent me a link to this house and said, ‘Maybe you can come to my place. We’ll have more fun if we stay together in the same city,’” Chun said. “I looked at the house and it was great. Then I realized that I really wanted a house in the U.S. so I can have more good rest when I’m in the States.”
A home, a mooring, a sense of place: these are all rungs on the ladder of good mental health. And you can tell Chun is well into her climb.
In the opening round at the Four Seasons Golf & Sports Club, she shot 3-under par with six birdies and a triple bogey. Six months ago, she would have focused solely on the triple and spent hours in the range trying to purge whatever flaw caused it. Thursday, she shrugged and said, “I played 17 great holes and had one bad swing. So, I’m happy. It was a good round.”
That statement more than any other warmed the hearts of In Gee Chun fans everywhere.
“Yes, I’m working hard this winter,” she said. “But it has not been a shot problem. Last year was mental. Now, everything is good.