Pearl Sinn walks out of the Southern California heat and into Chef's Kitchen, the diner her parents own and operate in Bellflower, 14 miles southeast of downtown Los Angeles. Fresh from a victory in Texas, she has brought home yet another trophy. The day before, on July 20 in Austin, Pearl, 18, won the 59th Women's Western Golf Association National Junior Invitational Championship, one of four major tournaments for junior girls.
Her sister, Patti, 12, unpacks the fanshaped silver vase. It is handled and admired by the girls' parents, Jay and Sue, as well as by customers lingering over their coffee. Everyone scrutinizes the names and dates etched on the polished surface. Here is the name JOANNE GUNDERSON 1955. And here, NANCY LOPEZ 1972. And 1973. And 1974.
Gunderson is better known by her married name, JoAnne Carner. As did Carner, Pearl will play golf and study at Arizona State, starting classes this month. And expectations are that Pearl, like both Carner and Lopez, will have a notable professional career. Lopez has already expressed the opinion that the day Sinn turns pro, she will be one of the best young players on the tour.
Including the Western Junior, she has won 10 of her last 14 tournaments, among them the California and national high school championships and the Los Angeles women's and junior girls' titles. Of the four tournaments she did not win, one was a playoff loss, another the U.S. Women's Open, where she was one of just four amateurs—and the youngest player—to make the cut. She bounced back from an 80 with a second-round 71 but finished in 60th place with a 309.
Pearl made headlines in March of this year when she shot a 70 to take a share of the first-round lead in the LPGA's $250,000 GNA tournament at the Oakmont Country Club in Glendale, Calif. She finished 15th with a 296.
"The GNA really raised her confidence," says Linda Vollstedt, the women's golf coach at Arizona State. "She learned that she can play competitive golf. It was a big turning point for her."
Pearl was born in Seoul, South Korea, and lived there until her family moved to the U.S. in 1977. But in many ways she is a typical American teenager. She was a senior-class officer last year at Bellflower High and wrote opinion pieces for the school newspaper, The Blade. She graduated on June 20 with a 3.83 grade-point average, third in her class of 300. On the same day, Pearl, Patti and their father became U.S. citizens. (Sue had already become one seven months earlier.)
Though some of her teachers suggest that she is a quiet person, Pearl disagrees. "I love to socialize, just like my mom," she says. Pearl and her friends in junior golf have been known to terrorize a course at 2 a.m. with a round of blindman's golf, where the shots, made in the dark, are judged by ear. "That sounds like a slice," she says, giving an example of the intricacies of such an outing.
Pearl and Patti share more than just a bedroom at home—they also share a love of golf. Patti won the Junior World 10-and-under title two years ago, and though Pearl has five years on Patti, she doesn't often give her younger sister any strokes. "She has already beaten me once," Pearl notes.
Golf has been both a dark cloud and the silver lining for the Sinns. In the 1970s Jay had a prosperous real estate and escrow business in Seoul. He took up golf to improve his general health and found that he not only liked the game but also was good at it. "I was the long hitter of the Orient," he says. But his hours at the course came at the expense of his business: By the time he had whittled his handicap down to a five, he had whittled his business down to zero. Looking for a chance to start over, the Sinns moved to the U.S.
When Jay heard that the Bellflower municipal golf course was looking for someone to operate its coffee shop, Jay and Sue saw an opportunity to start over in a way that combined pleasure with business—although Sue admits that she "didn't even know how to boil an egg." To keep Pearl entertained as he and Sue worked, Jay cut down a putter and pointed her at the practice green. "A few days later she stopped putting," Jay says. "I asked her why. 'Just putting isn't fun,' she said." Jay cut down some more clubs, and his older daughter was soon at home on the range.
"Jay used to coach her from the golf course's restaurant," says Carl Gibboney, who has known the family since the Bellflower coffee-shop days and is now a regular at Chef's Kitchen, which the Sinns bought in 1984. "We'd be sitting at the counter, and he would look over our heads and through the service window." Jay would clap to get Pearl's attention and then use hand signals to tell her to keep a shoulder down or an elbow up.
"All of us thought Pearl's talent was a natural gift," says Virgil Hirsch, another Chefs Kitchen regular. "Then we saw Patti with the same swing and knew it had to be the coaching."
Jay's aim has been to meld the tempo and timing that, he says, typify the swings of Asian golfers and the power typical of U.S. golfers. Pearl is only 5'3", but when she's hitting the ball well, which is to say nearly always, she cracks her drives an eye-opening 230 yards.
But it is the athletic elegance of her swing, whether she's wielding a driver or a wedge, that makes other golfers pay attention. "Dad always stresses that what's important is not if you're first, second or third, not if you've shot 77, 73 or 70, but if you know what you've done in terms of how you played, how you hit the ball," Pearl says. "He stresses that hitting the ball right is most important."
"She has really good tempo," Vollstedt says. "She has a nice fluid swing. You don't need to know mechanics to know it looks good."
Golfers coming off the 9th hole at Bellflower often park on the wooden benches near the clubhouse and watch Pearl and Patti practice until they finish their buckets. One time years ago, before the trophies and the scholarship offers and the press clippings, a man gave Pearl a five-dollar bill and said, "I just want to watch you hit a bucket of balls." It may not be long before a lot more people will be paying to watch Pearl play.