Sam Choi Makes History at 118th SCGA Amateur
History was made Sunday at Mission Hills CC, and not just because for the first time in its 118-year history the SCGA Amateur Championship was held in the Coachella Valley.
Sam Choi, at just 17 years and one month of age, topped the rest of the field by five shots to become the youngest winner in the event’s long and prestigious history.
“It’s an honor to win this historical tournament,” said Choi, a rising senior at Anaheim Discovery Christian School.
Going to bed Saturday night with a 3-stroke advantage, Choi had to sleep on the biggest lead of his young career. Having just come off back-to-back bogey-free rounds on Days 2 and 3 of the Championship, Choi looked to be in cruise control, ending Round 3 three strokes ahead of recent USC graduate Danny Ochoa and six shots better than the rest of the field. But being on top of the leaderboard isn't always easy.
"I was so nervous last night," said Choi. "I basically just watched a lot of PGA TOUR and European Tour golf and tried to stay distracted. But when I got to the golf course today I was definitely nervous."
If he was nervous, it barely showed. Despite carding a bogey on the 5th hole, his first scorecard blemish in an astonishing 45 holes, Choi looked unflappable. He played the front nine in even par.
"I was hitting some disappointing shots on the front nine," said a humble Choi.
But it's Ochoa who will probably look back at that front nine as the one that got away. Entering the day in solo second place, Ochoa hit his first tee shot of the day OB, having to play a provisional and settle for a double bogey, quickly putting him five shots off the lead. The Carlsbad native would quickly right the ship, carding an easy birdie on the par-5 second hole before playing the rest of the front nine in even par.
However, it was the missed opportunities that followed that would allow Choi to keep his commanding lead. After Choi's bogey on the 5th hole, Ochoa was three shots off the lead, back to where he began the day. He would then put some pressure on Choi with an incredible tee shot on the par-3 8th hole, sticking it to two feet. After Choi missed his 10-footer for birdie, Ochoa followed suit, missing his putt just left of the hole to miss an opportunity to get within striking distance. On the very next hole Ochoa would again put himself in position to collect a much-needed birdie, but missed the eight-foot putt to remain at 9-under par.
That was all Choi needed to get into gear. He would make his own birdie putt on No. 9 and go on to play the back nine in 4-under par. The impressive display of hitting fairways and greens that spectators saw during Rounds 2 and 3 reappeared, and the Korean-born golfer refused to let Ochoa back into the race. He would open up the back nine with a birdie on No. 10 to extend his lead to five, and despite Ochoa playing the back nine in three-under par himself, the eventual champion ended his own round with three straight birdies on the three final holes of the tournament.
"On the back nine I started to really keep up and play aggressively," said Choi, who has verbally committed to play college golf at the University of New Mexico.
Minutes after tapping in for birdie on Mission Hills' iconic 18th hole, Choi made the historic leap into Poppie's Pond, a time-honored tradition first started by SCGA Hall of Famer Amy Alcott after her 1988 victory at the ANA Inspiration. Every year since, the winner of the LPGA Tour's major championship makes that very same leap, as does the victor of the annual AJGA event also held at Mission Hills. Earlier this year, Choi finished third at that AJGA event.
"Jumping into the pond felt great," said Choi, who ended up shooting rounds of 69-67-67-68 for a four-day total of 17-under par. "Having played in the AJGA event here really helped me feel more comfortable with the course, and I just want to thank Mission Hills for being a great host."
Ochoa would finish five back of the champion, and four strokes better than fellow USC grad Andrew Levitt, Joshua Matz and Donald Kay, who all finished T3 at 8-under par. 2004 Champion Tim Hogarth continued his impressive play in the event, earning his fourth straight Top 10 finish at 3-under par T10.
Choi's record-breaking victory makes him the youngest winner of the Championship, a feat previously held by Paul Hunter, who in 1908 won his first of a record five SCGA Amateur titles at 17 year and four months of age.
With the victory, Choi is exempted into next year's SCGA Amateur Championship, which will be held at La Jolla CC, as well as the 2018 California Amateur Championship, which will head to Omni La Costa Resort & Spa.