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TSN Senior Reporter

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It’s doubtful that Albin Choi could have ever imagined the wild ride his life has taken the last decade. His world has turned upside down and inside out several times, but finally, at long last, it seems to be showing some sense of stability.

Last week, the Toronto product finished second in the second stage of the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying. That gave him a spot in the final stage and assured him of some status on the junior circuit to the PGA Tour next year.

“I can’t believe all the things that happened to me over the last few years,” said Choi, from his home in Jupiter, Fla. “I went through a lot of dark times getting through these last few years. This is like a breath of fresh air.”

If you were to look at his golf record, playing on a top tour would seem to have been an easy path for someone with such talent. Choi, who started playing at 14 at Don Valley, one of Toronto’s five municipal courses, was an Ontario Amateur champion, a Canadian Amateur winner and finished as low amateur in the RBC Canadian Open. He captured nine collegiate titles while playing at North Carolina State where he was a three-time all-American. He played on the Canadian national team and drained the winning putt at the 2013 Copas de las Americas as part of a squad that included Corey Conners and Brooke Henderson.

“I think he was the best at that time,” recalled Mackenzie Hughes, who battled him in their amateur days in Southern Ontario. “He was better than me, better than Corey. He was the best guy coming out of Canada. I was always envious of him because he didn’t have to grind to be very, very good. He had all the shots, he won a lot of tournaments, he was always the guy to beat.”

It seemed he was destined for a straight shot to the top ranks in golf. But life doesn’t always travel a direct path. In 2011, while at a Canadian national team training camp in Florida, Choi’s mother, Ericka, suffering from depression, took her life.

“Stuff happens in life,” Choi said a few years after his mother passed. “It doesn’t always turn out the way you want it to. She was my biggest fan, the biggest cheerleader. I’ll always have a hole in my heart.”

For many years, Choi carried the burden of his mother’s passing inside him, wondering if he could have prevented it. It never rested easy on his mind. How could it?

“I can’t even begin to imagine what it was like for him,” said Team Canada head coach Derek Ingram, who was there the day Choi got the phone call from his father telling him his mother was dead. “I think it’s taken him a long time to come to grips with everything.”

While he dealt with the unthinkable tragedy, Choi’s golf continued on, showing no signs of let up. Foregoing his last year of collegiate eligibility, he qualified for the 2014 Korn Ferry Tour but missed the cut in nine of 19 starts and lost his status.

He came home and played on PGA Tour Canada, notching his first professional win in June in Victoria. Later that year, he re-qualified for the Korn Ferry Tour where he spent the next four years, making 88 starts. His first season was his best, with three top-10s and $80,000 in earnings. The next three years, however, his game gradually slipped away. Injuries and self-inflicted pressure ate away at his smooth, compact swing. The harder he tried, the worse he played.

In 2019, his best finish was a tie for 16th in the first event of the season. He missed 13 cuts in 22 starts and only earned $38,000, losing his playing privileges as a result.

For the first time in his career, Choi had nowhere to play. That soon became a minor issue. A bigger problem was that he had nothing in his bank account, had no income to speak of and had some substantial bills to pay from his years on tour.

Add to that, he was still trying to process his mother’s death, something he admitted he never properly grieved. The weight of all his problems landed squarely on him all at once.

“To be honest, things were pretty bad,” admitted Choi. “I ran out of money and I had some injuries. Things were bleak for a while.”

To make ends meet he began caddying six days a week at Old Palm Golf Club, a toney gated community in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. It paid the bills and kept him around the game. Some members, learning of his story, also helped out and tried to help him re-start his playing career. In between loops, he played mini-tour events around Florida, hoping to parlay his caddying money into minor league paydays.

Then came a call that would alter his path once again. Sungjae Im had fired his caddie and was looking for a one-week fill-in while he sorted things out. He turned to Choi, a friend, with a Korean background and someone who could not only caddy but act as a translator.

The two were an immediate success, winning the Honda Classic by a shot over Hughes, of all people. The payday for Choi was substantial and couldn’t have come at a better time.

“That really gave me a second chance,” he said. “I got to settle some stuff financially and that was a huge relief. It changed everything for me.”

Im and Choi continued to work together after the PGA Tour’s pandemic pause but by the end of the season, the partnership had run its course.

It had always been a short-term gig for Choi, who still wanted to play on the PGA Tour, not caddie on it.

Last year, he spent most of his time re-building his swing with David Lee, a pro he met at Old Palm. His once fluid swing had become filled with potholes that were in need of repair.

“We made some pretty significant changes,” he said. “It took a long time to get it back in shape. My game was really awful for about six or eight months but I’m feeling really good about things right now.”

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, there was no Korn Ferry qualifying school last year which meant a long wait to try and get back on that tour. So Choi honed his new swing on the aptly named Minor League Golf Tour, a circuit that plays around Jupiter, Fla., with first-place cheques in the range of $1,000. He won six times.

At the end of September, In the first stage of Korn Ferry qualifying, he went 19 under to finish second. At second stage, a final-round 65 allowed him to finish second again. That meant he will be back on the Korn Ferry Tour for at least a handful of starts. Next week, he’ll play the final stage where the higher the finish means better status for the year ahead. Should he win, he will earn a full exemption.

“There’s a lot of people who have reached out to congratulate me,” Choi stated, “but the job isn’t done yet. I want to finish this off and get back out there and play. That’s what I’ve always wanted to do.”

The pats on the back have come from far and wide. Hughes, Conners, Nick Taylor and Taylor Pendrith have all reached out as has Im. They all know the talent and the desire Choi possesses.

“I think he’s happy again,” said Ingram. “It’s taken a long time, understandably. Here’s a guy who has had it hard, really hard. The guys he played against, Corey and Mac and Taylor, are all on the PGA Tour. He’s just taking a longer time to find his path.”

“I think it’s a testament to his character,” added Hughes. “He’s been in some low places and to see where he’s at now, a crazy full circle. It’s awesome that he’s able to have that opportunity. Most important, I think he’s happy and in a good place.”

Choi knows that there are no guarantees. After what he’s been through, a second chance is a blessing.

“I go back to those dark times and I understand what a gift this is,” he said. “I’m just a little more appreciative to play golf for a living. I had to go through some hard times but those have motivated me and made me hungrier. I think my best days are ahead of me and I don’t think there are any limits. I very much want to find out how far I can go.”