Cho Rides Rollercoaster To Success

May 9, 2006

Article courtesy of Golfweek

GOLFWEEK Senior Writer

If Disneyland ever was looking to build a new roller coaster, amusement park officials could name it Irene Cho. The USC senior, after all, has lived the ultimate thrill ride the past four years, a Space Mountain of sorts.

There have been plenty of ups and downs, twists and turns since Cho stepped on the trendy Los Angeles campus as a heralded freshman with loads of expectations. Now the 21-year-old California native has won twice this season, is making a bid for national Player of the Year honors and is a virtual lock to become an All-American for the third time.

Cho's career, however, nearly ended before she finished her freshman year. The former competitive figure skater was so frazzled from juggling golf with academics during her first year that she considered quitting golf. When Cho was disqualified from the Pac-10 Championship for signing an incorrect scorecard the pressure had mounted so much that she met with coach Andrea Gaston to discuss the future.

'The pressure really got to me,' Cho said. 'I never had trouble in school. But having to deal with golf and school at the same time was too much for me. I didn't want to play on the team anymore.'

Said Gaston, who is in her 10th year at USC: 'When you're young, you panic and don't always want to learn from the mistake. She was at that point. When you reach those moments you have to deal with things head on. You realize part of your life is about growing up. She's gone on to do that extremely well.'

And that may be understating it a bit. Once Gaston and Cho developed an appropriate time schedule for Cho, she has flourished. After a T-34 finish at the NCAA regionals, Cho recorded a third-place tie at the NCAA Championship, missing a playoff for the individual title (won by her teammate Mikaela Parmlid) by a shot. Her unexpected performance played a major role in helping the Trojans claim the team title at Purdue's Kampen Course. Several weeks later she qualified for the U.S. Women's Open and ultimately finished 58th at Pumpkin Ridge.

Year two was more of an individual success than a team success. Cho took the momentum she built from the summer into her sophomore year and recorded six top 20 finishes and four top 10s. But last year was another disappointment as Cho collected only one top-10 finish and twice finished worse than 50th.

Standing on the first tee of the first event last fall Cho didn't know what to expect as she began her senior campaign. She didn't know if she'd play like she did the first part of her freshman season and all of last year or if she'd find the smooth stroke that propelled her to second-team All-American honors as a sophomore. So, she began with a modest goal of trying to win one tournament. After two runner-up finishes in the fall, Cho has won twice this spring, including a one-shot victory at the Northrop Grumman Regional Challenge and a 10-shot triumph at the Guadalajara Invitational, where she shot a second-round 64 en route to a 13-under 203 total.

'When I was faltering I lost a lot of confidence,' said Cho, who has ended the last three year's ranked 61st, 13th and 56th in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings. She's currently third. 'Now, when I make a mistake, I learn from it.

'I've always had fun, I'm just putting less pressure on myself. When I'm out on the golf course I'm not looking ahead, not looking in the past.'

Said Gaston: 'It's been great to see her focus this season, she's really on target. It's amazing how big the hole has become for her.'The next six weeks will write the final chapter in Cho's roller-coaster career as the Trojans play one more regular season event before finishing with the Pac-10 Championship, the NCAA Regional and the NCAA Championship. Since she easily reached her original goal of winning one tournament this season, Cho's newest goal is to remain humble and maintain her No. 3 position in rankings with an eye on the top prize.

Cho has not looked past her college career but says she'll graduate in December with a communications degree. She hopes her golf resume is strong enough to give her consideration for the U.S. Curtis Cup team and, if she's on that team, she'll likely play in the U.S. Women's Amateur before turning professional in September to enter LPGA Q-School.

'Right now I'm enjoying my last year of college before I go out and have to deal with real pressure,' Cho said. 'Golf is really meant for me right now.'

She deserves it after the roller coaster she's been on.

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