Young golf star soothed by Chopin sonatas

Picked as a star by one of the great women golfers of all time, Wellington teenager Darae Chung is preparing herself mentally and physically to play overseas again.

When 16-year-old Darae Chung travels around the country – and eventually around the globe again – playing golf, she will have the sophisticated strains of classical music keeping her company.

The Year 11 student from Chilton Saint James School in Lower Hutt used to listen to a lot of pop as she travelled to tournaments around the world over the past two years.  

But now Chung, who was New Zealand’s number one amateur woman in 2019, prefers the company of Chopin, Händel, and Tchaikovsky.

“I’ve listened to classical music for a long time, but it wasn’t really one of my favourite genres,” she says. “I played the violin and viola for seven years before I started playing golf seriously, but during lockdown, I started looking at different things and classical music caught my interest.”

Unable to get out on the links under Level four lockdown, Chung also kept herself busy with study, reading and, of course, golf practice. There were the expected challenges that come with being stuck in one place with the same people, but Chung was able to control her mindset through meditation and reflection each day.

“My dad set up a big fishing net in our backyard and we would just hit hundreds of balls into that every day. We also have a putting mat at home, and I would hit thousands of balls into that too,” she says

Training her mind to think she can still perform against international players is another practice Chung has used to get through the Covid-19 restrictions.

She's usually on the road for nearly half the year with golf tournaments. “Sometimes I'm away for a whole month, or in the off-season it can be once a month,” says the teen, who’s been playing offshore four to five times a year.

With most of the leading tournaments for women in the United States, there are lost opportunities right now with the lack of international competition. But Chung says New Zealand has a good tournament set-up.

“Even though it’s the same players because New Zealand is quite small, you can still have a good level of competition here,” says Chung.

Golf in New Zealand is back to some level of normalcy, with Chung competing in two tournaments in Matamata last weekend, and finishing runner-up with Amy Im in the New Zealand Women’s Foursomes (won by Eunseo Choi and Danika Lee).  She's teed up to play in the Muriwai Open later this month and defend her New Zealand U19 title at Ngāruawāhia in September.

Legendary Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam chose Darae Chung to play in her winning team in Florida.  Photo: supplied. 

Chung, who only recently turned 16, first picked up a club six years ago but got hooked after competing in her first tournament.

“I got called into a local team because there weren't enough numbers and my team actually ended up winning. It was my first tournament ever and I couldn’t forget that feeling. I think I just kept on working hard so I could feel it again and again, and it’s got me here,” she says.

The need to keep chasing the same feeling also led Chung to the United States last year for the Sir Nick Faldo Major Champions Invitational in Florida.

The tournament is hosted by six-time Major champion Sir Nick Faldo, and involves 18 Major champions each inviting and developing four players to represent them. Chung was invited by legendary Swedish golfer Annika Sörenstam to play in her team.

“That’s the first time I ever went to the US to play golf and it was such an amazing experience,” says Chung. The Bella Collina course in Florida, designed by Faldo, is now one of Chung’s favourite courses and the experience is a career highlight so far.

Sörenstam, considered one of the greatest female golfers of all time, saw the spark and drive in Chung at her own invitational tournament, the ANNIKA Invitational Australasia, in Wellington in late 2018.

“I played pretty well in the tournament and I think she saw the potential in me - that’s a bit weird to say – but she invited me to represent her in Florida,” says Chung, born and raised in Wellington.

“Fun fact: our team actually won that tournament and we were the only all-women team. We had players from Argentina, the US and Mexico,” she says.

Helping other young female golfers is part of Chung’s long-term plan.

“I want to turn professional so I can influence a lot of people, especially young women,” says Chung. “Because right now, I’ve been influenced by the likes of Lydia Ko, Annika Sörenstam and so many other legendary golf players.”

Chung says Ko has definitely set a good example of what world-class status looks like for a lot of women golfers in New Zealand.

“I haven’t really worked with her [Ko] personally but if you just watch her and her demeanour, she influences everybody in more ways than one,” Chung says.

She is inspired by Ko and pioneering South Korean golfer Se Ri Pak - who's victory at the 1988 US Women's Open inspired the wave of Korean women who'ved play in the LPGA since. 

“They both went through rough times in their lives and they overcame adversity. That's something I really admire because it's really hard to come back from a hard place,” she says.

To reach the goal of being able to positively influence young women, Chung knows she needs to first make a name for herself.

“The process that I’m doing now - trying to win as many tournaments and majors - will help me in the long-term,” she says.

Darae Chung on her way to winning last year's Carrus Women's Open. Photo: supplied. 

So far Chung has won a number of age grade championships including the NZ U19s, and women’s titles such as the Carrus Women’s Open in Tauranga last year - her first victory on the Charles Tour, New Zealand's professional circuit.

As a member of New Zealand Golf’s development academy, Chung enjoys the extra support she receives from the national organisation.

“They do so much, not just teaching you how to play golf but more the mental side of golf,” says Chung. “That’s something very cool and I find it very helpful, because if you don’t have a team to support you with your goals, then you kind of get lost in the process.”

When she first started playing golf competitively, Chung admits trying to manoeuvre study and sport was difficult when she was away from school at least two weeks of every month.

“Some people may find it easy to manage their time, but for me I found it quite hard because I love playing with my friends and doing things outside of golf, so I had to set my priorities,” says Chung, who's fluent in Korean and English. 

“You need to set out times for school and practice and figure out what makes you really tired and keep being self-aware.”

So will Chung consider moving overseas and continue juggling her sport and schooling? While the US college scholarships look amazing, she says, especially being able to study what you want and play golf at the same time. But she’s keeping her options open.

Whatever path Chung chooses, the mature, well-rounded schoolgirl will be two shots ahead on her next adventure on the greens.

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