East Coweta senior Ji Eun Baik making name for herself on state, national level
By CHRIS GOLTERMANN
Ji Eun Baik didn’t pick up a golf club until she was 12-years-old, and at that time, the South Korean native was still finding her way in America.
But since then, the current East Coweta High senior moved up the leaderboard among the state’s best young female golfers in a hurry.
For now, it’s the crown jewel in a busy summer schedule. It continues Monday when the SummerGrove Golf Club member makes a short trek to McDonough for a USGA Women’s Amateur qualifier at Eagle’s Landing Country Club.
Baik shot an even 72 during her June 26 Junior qualifier at The Manor in Alpharetta, a score that’s consistent with her play from varsity competition in the spring. She earned low medalist honors in Region 2-AAAAA while posting the top score, male or female, with a 1-under 71 and went on to finish in a tie for third at the state tournament with a 1-over 73.
Last week she remained equally steady by winning the Southeastern Junior Tour’s Capitol Hill Junior Classic with consecutive rounds of 74 and 72 in Prattville, Ala. Since October, Baik’s only posted three rounds in the 80s among 11 SGJT events, having now added her third win.
This week provides an opportunity to prove herself beyond her own age group. The field includes both junior and female standouts from at least 10 states and from five countries outside the U.S.
“It’ll be even more competitive,” she said of Monday’s USGA qualifier. “But I enjoy it. This summer has been extremely busy for me. I’m trying to get a college scholarship now so I’ve put more pressure on myself. But I’ve gained more confidence in my game.”
It’s the second consecutive year that a junior golfer from Newnan will be playing in the USGA Girls Junior. Newnan golfer Annie Swords qualified for the event in 2011 as a 14-year-old. Recent Newnan High graduate Trevor Smith, on his way to Coastal Georgia on a golf scholarship, also qualified for the 2011 USGA Boys Junior Amateur.
Remarkably, outside Baik’s father, Sonny, who began playing with his daughter at the same time, and East Coweta varsity coach Jason Tidwell, “J.B.” hasn’t had any outside help with coaching. When she arrived as a freshman, Baik made an immediate impression among her new coach as well as the program’s boys players, one that even surprised her a little bit.
“I came out as a freshman and I remember hitting a ball in front of Coach Tidwell and him saying, ‘Hey, you’re pretty good,’” she said when asked when she began to see major improvements in her game. “All the guys were watching me hit and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, stay away from her.’ Up until then I wasn’t really sure what kind of player I was.”
Adapting and succeeding, however, has become second nature. When she was four Baik made the first of two international moves, living in Israel until she was eight and then spending six months in Costa Rica, where her younger brother was born. The family, which also includes 15-year-old younger sister Ji Young — an award-winning artist at ECHS — eventually came to the United States in 2004 and learned English as a fourth grader living outside Seattle.
“English was hard,” she admitted. “I arrived in April and school was almost done for that year. But my friends helped me a lot with it, especially with saying things right gramatically.”
She’s now well on her way to becoming an honor graduate at East Coweta with a host of Division I golf programs equally in pursuit. Georgia, Auburn and Mississippi State have all shown interest and Baik said Vanderbilt has told her they’ll be watching in San Francisco. Despite all her travels, though, don’t expect her to choose a school too far away from her new home.
“Definitely in the Southeast. I like it where it’s warm,” she said. “Really, I’d be happy playing for any Division I program. I definitely want to go somewhere with good academics. My dad has always told me before golf comes grades.”
Golf, however, didn’t provide much of a spark early on. Baik hated taking lessons at first in a group that also included her father.
“I didn’t like it at all,” she admitted. “I remember saying to him, “This is boring. I can’t hit the ball.”
Sticking with the sport had its benefits, though. Her driving prowess picked up rapidly to a point where she now can routinely drive the ball 260 yards. During the USGA Junior Qualifier last month, Baik reached the green in two on the par 4, 373-yard 13th to set up a birdie.
Baik, admits, however that she still needs improvement with her short game. Routinely she’ll carry a bucket of balls onto the course at SummerGrove and set up around a bunker pitching 50 to 100 balls toward the green.
“It’s so crucial,” she said. “It affects your score so much. One or two strokes can make all the difference in a match.”
Coming up later this summer is a junior event in Atlanta, July 30-31. She’ll then play for Team Georgia in the GSGA’s Georgia-South Carolina Challenge Match Play tournament on Aug. 4-5.
Speaking to a reporter moments before heading back out onto the SummerGrove course on Friday for a practice round, Baik couldn’t imagine doing anything else on a typical afternoon in early July.
“I absolutely love it,” she said. “I know now I want to do this in college.”
On her current pace, Ji Eun Baik is well on her way.