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Choi: ‘Top three’ is Lobos’ NCAA regional goal

Sam Choi, a South Korean who became a junior golfing star in California, has lived up to his promise and then some, says University of New Mexico men’s golf coach Glen Millican. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Journal Photo)

Sam Choi definitely believes in the University of New Mexico men’s golf team for which he plays.

The Lobos have great momentum entering the NCAA Southwest Regional, scheduled for the UNM Championship Golf Course Monday through Wednesday, so Choi, New Mexico’s No. 1, is setting some lofty goals, higher than the team’s No. 5 seed.

“Me and my buddies,” he said, referring to his teammates, “we’ve set our goals. It’s a top -three finish. If we just play decent golf here, we’ll probably finish top three.”

Moving up two spots higher than the Lobos’ seed doesn’t seem like much, but the top three seeds at the Southwest Regional? Oklahoma is the top seed and the top-ranked team in the nation by Golfweek/Sagarin. No. 2-seeded Arizona State is ranked No. 9 in the nation. No. 3 Texas A&M is ranked No. 14, and even fourth-seeded Texas Tech is ranked No. 15.

UNM, the Mountain West Conference champion, is ranked No. 19.

“It’s been a good season, a good three months,” Choi said of the Lobos’ spring. “We’ve played as a team. We’re very on top (of our game). Peaking and ready to play in the nationals.”

Choi is confident the Lobos can be at least among the low five teams to advance to the NCAA Championships at Grayhawk Golf Club in Scottsdale, Arizona, May 28-June 2. If the Lobos don’t finish among the lowest five, Choi can advance is if he wins the regional as an individual. Don’t rule that out.

The home-course advantage assuredly applies to Choi, who shot a six-under 65 in the third round of the Pacific Coast Amateur Championship in July of 2019. Quade Cummins, now a redshirt senior for Oklahoma and one of four Sooner All-Americans, won that four-round event at 20-under.

Choi earned third-team All-America status last year, which was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic.

The Lobos do not have a team captain, but the soft-spoken Choi, a junior who is ranked No. 23 in the nation by Golfstat, is a natural leader with his solid game and work ethic. He was named to the All-Mountain West Conference team on Thursday. He averaged 70.52 in 21 rounds to lead the Lobos this spring, and tied for first in regulation at the MWC Championship at the Omni Tucson National Golf Course in Arizona on May 1. Choi lost in a playoff to his high school teammate at Anaheim (Calif.) Discovery Christian High, San Diego State’s Puwit Anupansuebsai.

Choi moved to the U.S. seven years ago at age 13 from South Korea and became one of the top junior golfers in the nation.

When he was 17 he became the youngest winner in the 118-year history of the Southern California Golf Association Amateur Championship. He won by five strokes at the Dinah Shore Tournament Course at Mission Hills Country Club in Rancho Mirage.

UNM coach Glen Millican sensed Choi would become an All-American when Choi brought his talents to Albuquerque. Choi is fulfilling expectations.

“His preparation is always perfect,” Millican said. “His competitiveness, his attitude and the way he manages his game during competition couldn’t be better. When you combine that with a lot of hard work, and then he’s talented, you’re going to see a lot of good play. And even when he’s not playing that good, it’s still going to be better than most. He doesn’t really have a weakness in his game.

“He’s got multiple ways to get it done,” Millican continued. “That literally comes from all the time he puts into his game.”

Choi guessed that he has played at least 500 rounds on UNM Championship Course. He said it will be important not to become too frustrated when he doesn’t birdie the holes that he should birdie, like the par-4 No. 10, for example.

“This time of the year it’s usually about the wind,” Choi said in regards to the course. “There’s going to be some tough challenges out there.”

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