Magenta Shores CC, March 29-31, 2024

HAYES: Tears, Triumphs & Tributes


At sporting events, some are good and some not so much.

But all, without fail, show the passionate investment by athletes in their craft.

Cecilia Cho – Jeong Min to family and friends in her native Korea – confessed after her opening round at Duntryleague on Monday that she’d spent much of the past year or two in sad tears at home worrying about her golfing future after a comparatively long winless streak.

Today in Orange, after her second win in as many weeks, the 29-year-old was on the verge of happy tears after winning the regional qualifier to formalise her berth in the Women’s New South Wales Open later this month.

Cho, who essentially came on a holiday with her parents to visit her brother in Sydney, will now gleefully extend her stay in Australia, even to the point of missing the opening events on this year’s Korean LPGA Tour.

This is important for multiple reasons. She has been a force – albeit winless since 2019 – on her fiercely inward-looking and brutally tough domestic tour for more than a decade after turning pro having previously been the world’s leading amateur.

But it has also been rut-inducing.

When – at the insistence of Korean-based legendary Aussie caddie Dean Herden – she was put in the hands of Wollongong pro Steve McRae less than three months ago, her game had become a shell of its former potent self.

McRae, something of a guru in dealing with broken pros, gave her some tough love – to “toughen up” was one of the key instructions.

“When I had my first lesson with Steve, he said, `You look like you don’t belong on the course’,” Cho recalled after her pulsating playoff win over Emma Ash today, achieved after 20 gruelling holes “without my best game”.

“But now I see myself that I belong and I’m actually playing golf again – it’s a big difference.

“Steve would say it’s about trust and confidence. If he could see me today, he’d say, `Your eyes are now open instead of hiding away from all the shots you’re afraid of’.

“I’m trying to face up to all the challenges. They’re all just little things, but they add up.

“Saying it, I think it’s nothing, but to actually do it is something else.”

Cho said she felt nerves as early as the first hole of her second round as she and Ash set out with a four-shot break on the field after great first rounds.

Neither had their A-game today, yet both knuckled down with steely resolve when things went awry.

“It was an effort out there, my game wasn’t really there, the nerves got me and I just tried to hang on – it was quite magical how I got it done,” Cho reflected with raw honesty, her bright eyes going ever so slightly glassy.

“I can go into tears after today’s game, good tears though, but they’re a long way away (from what they were a few months ago).

“When I look at my (diary), I like to write notes, the things I’m working on now are quite similar, not dramatically different, but the feelings I carry at the moment and just the vibes are so different, really positive.

“I’m very excited … it’s really going to extend my stay in Australia, but that’s OK because I’m in the NSW Open and I’m really happy about that.”

You could have excused – also for more than one reason – the emotions spilling over for Ash, too.

The Sydney-based South Australian was partially brilliant, occasionally nervous and perma-stoic in pushing her world-class opponent all the way.

But even after all the tumult of 20 holes under the glaring spotlight of the final group, the tears Ash battled to hold back were far more personal.

She makes no secret that she’s playing in memory of her great friend and mentor Peter Ward, a stalwart at Ash’s home club of Thaxted Park, south of Adelaide.

Ward died suddenly last week and is still firmly in her mind with a funeral still to come.

“He’d be very happy that I put myself in that position, but I would have liked to get it done for him,” said Ash, 31, another glassy-eye candidate in the moments post-round.

“It’s bitter sweet – I’m stoked to have made the playoff, but I really wanted to get it done for Pete.

“But it’s OK, we’ll go again.

“This is a huge step forward, though. I don’t think I played very well today, but I hung in there. Old me probably would have just crumbled, but I’ve just shown that I’ve grown a lot as a player, dug deep and stuck in the fight.”

A prime example of that was on the fifth hole today when her drive sniped into a thick tree left of the fairway and with precious few options and good shots required just to avoid a double-bogey, even after taking relief.

“Yeah, proud that I just stayed calm, thought through my options when my ball was dead,” she said.

“It’s about asking questions even when you know the answer, staying calm and thinking about how I can make bogey. I wouldn’t have done that (previously).”

Ash said that while standing on the final tee, her thought was to play for the NSW Open qualifying berth given that she thought Cho was two shots ahead of her.

It wasn’t until a clearer account of the situation was provided to her further up the hole that she suddenly realised she had a birdie putt for victory.

As it slid by, it ultimately proved her best chance at a breakthrough WPGA Tour victory.

But even straight after the round, Ash could see the positives.

“Every year it’s getting better, I grow a bit more and learn something new about myself,” she said.

“And I think taking a minute to acknowledge that is really important.

“I’ll just think about all the good things, take them to Bathurst and now on to the NSW Open. Everything I’m doing is for Pete at the moment, we haven’t had his funeral yet, so it’s all about him for me right now.”

Ahhh, sport.

It gets you right where you live.

Every time.

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