By Gideon Rubin
The massive assemblage of talent Torrey Pines girls’ golf team had this year brought obvious advantages that helped the Falcons win their third consecutive state title.
But the Falcons abundance — or perhaps their excess — of championship-caliber players also presented some unique challenges, with some of the junior circuit’s fiercest competitors having to accept obscure secondary roles.
It is not an everyday occurrence, after all, when a Division I-bound high school golfer who travels around the country on recruiting trips, rarely appears in her team’s newspaper box score.
Such was the case for Torrey Pines, fielding a team likely to send at least eight golfers to Division I colleges on scholarships.
Their plight probably never scored the Falcons pity-points with their competitors. But in a sport that it is inherently individual-oriented, putting the greater goal of the team ahead of personal aspirations enabled them to cement their legacy as perhaps one of the greatest teams in state history as the program moved into dynasty territory.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Falcons coach Chris Drake said. “All the kids we have on this team are incredible. They’re committed to the school, they’re committed to the team and they’re committed to golf itself.”
That commitment started with the team’s two senior standouts, Minjia “the Ninja” Luo and Sandy Choi, both four-year players and Division I recruits. Luo has committed to Northwestern, and Choi to Duke.
“(Luo and Choi) did it without an ego,” Drake said. “They were about the team and they really put the team first and recognized that they weren’t playing well for themselves as much as they were playing well for the team to succeed, and for the team to win.”
Luo was a sophomore in 2010 when she beat out Choi for the San Diego Section individual championship “and Sandy was just stoked Minjia won it.”
A few weeks later, the Falcons would win the first of three straight titles.
Choi went on to win the next two section championships.
Luo, who’s been dogged by a bum knee this year, went on to win the state individual championship in her final high school competition.
But their legacies have as much to do with their leadership as with their advanced golfing skills.
“They root for each other,” Drake said. “It’s been amazing how those two really set the standard for what the team was going to be like.”
Their influence helped fuel a remarkable run. The Falcons were 98-1 since Luo and Choi joined the team as freshmen, with a current 80-match winning streak.
“They just have this idea that the team is the most important thing,” Drake said. “I think that Sandy and Minjia always had this idea that they always put the team first and that’s part of their legacy, this idea of the team success is more important than individual success.
“We couldn’t have done it without them; I think that’s part of the difference between us and the other teams.”
Despite knowing of their reputations as excellent youth golfers, Drake acknowledged that his first impressions of Choi and Luo offered no indication that they’d go on to become the impact players they are today.
In her varsity debut, a freshman Choi failed to clear to a water hazard on her first tee shot at Fairbanks Ranch.
“I didn’t have a lot of experience watching Sandy play and I didn’t quite know how she’d recover off her tee shot,” Drake said.
She turned things around in short order, rallying from a shaky first hole to fire a two-under –par on the day.
“After going in the water on her first shot she was mad and she was going to get those strokes back,” Drake said. “She doesn’t let anything faze her.”
Luo showed up at Torrey Pines her freshman year a diminutive “4-foot-11 tiny little skinny kid, 70 pounds maybe.
“I didn’t really think there was much there.”
There turned to be a lot there.
Luo’s career highlights include being the only player to ever shoot a hole-in-one at the state meet. Her ace on the par-3 17th hole at Poppy Hills helped the Falcons edge out second-place Torrance by one stroke.
It was the second hole-and-one she shot her junior year, the other coming in a tournament in San Clemente. She shot another hole-in-one in practice earlier this season.
Luo was playing on a broken toe when she shot her hole-in-one at the state meet last year.
“She’s a tough kid,” Drake said, noting that she declined a cart when she won the state this year playing with knee soreness.
Drake acknowledged it’s tough letting go of players who’ve brought as much to the program as Luo and Choi have. He said he’ll continue to follow their career in college and possibly beyond should they pursue professional careers.
“They’re awesome kids who are going to be greatly missed,” Drake said.