By Gideon Rubin
Torrey Pines junior golfing standouts Minjia Luo and Hee Wook Choi are two of the San Diego Section’s most dominant golfers.
But they also happen to be close pals, and both insist their friendship trumps small details such as individual section titles and other elite competitions.
They’re both equally adamant about not being referred to as “rivals” in any context, friendly, or otherwise.
“When we compete, it’s not like (regular) competition,” Luo said. “We just try to do our best, and whoever wins we’re happy about that.”
“We both know that there is competition between us, but we really don’t care about it,” Choi said. “We want to play our best, but in the end we’re not really like ‘I can’t believe you played better than me because I’m better than you.
“We don’t want to ruin our friendship because of something we both love to do.”
The then-sophomores tested their friendship when they went down to the wire in the hotly contested San Diego Section finals last season. Luo trailed Choi by a stroke after the first round of the two-day tournament, but rallied for a two-stroke win, with Choi finishing second.
And their friendship passed the test with flying colors.
“I was OK with it because our team won overall,” Choi said. ”I wasn’t really mad at her at all.
“We’re just really good friends,” Choi emphasized.
The unforgettable section finals was part of a magical Falcons season. They went on to complete an unbeaten season by winning a state championship — their second in seven years.
The Falcons have also won nine of 11 state section titles since the sport’s inception.
The friendship between the team’s two top golfers typified the attitude of a team that pulled for each other throughout the season despite a glaring disparity between its abundance of talent and shortage of available playing slots.
The Falcons had 19 players on a team, nearly all of whom would have been among the top players on most teams in the state.
“All of our teammates are really close and we just want each other to play well,” Choi said.
The Falcons open their title defense next month with a team that figures to be in the mix for another state championship.
In addition to Choi and Luo, key Falcons returnees include seniors Stacey Rayo and Emily Stephens, and sophomores Jennifer Peng, Sarah Cho and Georgia Lacey.
A strong incoming freshman class that features several nationally ranked players projects to make an impact too.
Choi and Luo form arguably one of San Diego County’s strongest one-two combinations, ever. Choi is ranked 47th in the nation in the girls’ circuit by Golfweek Magazine, and Luo is ranked 86th in the same poll.
Luo was a runner-up in the San Diego Section finals her freshman year.
“They’re best friends and they’re both incredible golfers,” Torrey Pines coach Chris Drake said of his terrific twosome.
But Choi and Luo are no carbon copies.
Choi, who’s known to teammates as “Sandy” but goes by Hee Wook, her official name, for ranking and recruiting purposes, is taller in stature and the more outgoing of the two.
Choi was born in Korea and moved to Vancouver, Canada, when she was 7. She was in seventh grade when she moved to the Carmel Valley.
Her career highlights include winning the American Junior Golf Association sanctioned Sean O’Hair Junior All-Star Championships last summer at Texas Tech University. She also placed third at the last summer’s Callaway Junior World Golf Association Championships at Torrey Pines Golf Course.
“What makes them special is that they’re kind of opposites,” Torrey Pines coach Chris Drake said.
“Sandy’s more outgoing, chatting all the way down the course until she gets to the ball. Minjia is more focused through entire round. She doesn’t let anything faze her.”
Choi said winning the state championship as a team was especially exciting for her because she’d always played golf as an individual in Canada.
“Before I decided to go to Torrey Pines I didn’t know about the golf team,” Choi said.
Choi learned about the Falcons golf program while practicing at a local driving range.
Her friendship with Luo formed soon after both made the varsity as freshmen.
Luo was a San Diego Section runner-up her freshman year, and became known affectionately around campus as “Minjia the Ninja,” a nickname she said “is pretty cool.”
Both believe they’ve helped each other improve their games.
Choi said she was shy before meeting Luo, who helped her come out of her shell, enabling her to be more relaxed on the course.
Luo said Choi’s sense of humor has made golf more fun.
“Sandy’s a really a funny person so I always have fun with her,” Luo said. “When I play with her I can concentrate better.”
Both players acknowledged that as their careers progress and the stakes involved in their matches grow, it’ll be hard not to view each other to some extent as competitors. But they insist they will always be friends first.
“Well, I guess there is competition as we grow older and as we get better and play in bigger tournaments,” Choi said, “but we’re always going to support each other and we’re always going to have fun.”