In Gee Chun gives back to town that made her feel at home
Following her third round of the 2015 U.S. Women's Open at Lancaster Country Club, South Korean player In Gee Chun found herself marveling at a swarm of countryside insects lighting up the night sky.
She was driving back to her rental house in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, after dinner when she encountered thousands of fireflies beside the road. Chun had seen these illuminating bugs back home in Seoul, but never so many in the urban sprawl of her homeland.
And on this evening before the Open's final round -- in which she trailed the leader by four strokes after 54 holes -- she watched in amazement.
"That meant a lot," she said. "After I saw them, I thought about dreams. I was inspired."
Her coach, Won Park, told his 20-year-old rising star to use the inspiration she found that night for a higher purpose.
"It turned out to be the inspiration for her to reach her goals and to have a positive influence in the world," said Won. "She felt like she could give light to people and give them hope -- just like the fireflies lighting up the sky."
Perhaps it's a stretch to say Chun's next-day success had anything to do with a host of blinking bugs, but her final-round score of 66 enabled her to come from behind to catch leader Amy Yang and win the U.S. Women's Open by one shot.
She became the fourth player to win the tournament on her first attempt and it was her first major championship victory that would ultimately award her automatic LPGA membership, which she deferred until 2016.
But while the victory, the resulting LPGA Tour card, an $810,000 champion's check and a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Women's Open added up to an incredible windfall for the young pro, what happened next was nothing anyone saw coming.
She fell in love with the people of a small southeast Pennsylvania town, who cheered her on and embraced her as their champion in the biggest thing that had hit their city since the introduction of Amish whoopie pies.
As an international player, Chun could have passed through that town of 59,000 citizens, collected her prize money, waved goodbye and never returned. But that's not how she rolls.
"I am not an American person, but they shared this win with me and loved me and gave me a warm heart," said Chun, 24, who went on to win her second major at the 2016 Evian Championship, as well as top 2016 LPGA rookie honors. "I have a really good memory from there."
While Chun has stayed in touch with some Lancaster residents since 2015, she will return there Tuesday and Wednesday for the first time since her Open win. Her visit comes a week before the 2018 U.S. Women's Open in Alabama, and she's making the trip to not only thank the citizens who supported her, but to launch a personally meaningful venture.
Along with the club, Chun will launch the In Gee Chun Lancaster Country Club Education Foundation, a 501(c)(3), to raise funds supporting educational pursuits of club caddies and children of club employees who might not otherwise be able to afford tuition. Chun will make a donation to seed the foundation, which will be announced during the event.
"In Gee has really gone out of her way to build a relationship with this community," said Rory Connaughton, a board member of the club and the foundation. "Since winning the U.S. Women's Open here in 2015, she has been very generous with some local charities."
Lancaster Country Club member Jody Kegel met Chun and her coach during the 2015 Women's Open and stayed in touch with them. Kegel was running a charity event at the club to raise money for cancer patients in the community and contacted Chun's coach following the championship to see if the player would sign a course flag that she could auction for the charity.
"Two flags came back signed, along with some photos and other things, but my big surprise was an envelope with a check for $10,000 for the charity," said Kegel. "She's done this three times since 2015."
Chun's coach noted that in the Korean language, the word "Mahn" means "full" or "10,000," so after seeing the night sky full of fireflies during the Open, she decided to donate "Mahn dollars" ($10,000) to the cancer fund.
Even while attending Korea University and winning nine times on the Korea Ladies Professional Golf Association, Chun was thinking of ways to give to others.
As a college senior in 2016, she launched In Gee Chun's Student Social Responsibility Activities Program that encourages students to propose funding for community service activities. Chun donates $100,000 each year to support the program.
In addition, each member of her "Flying Dumbo Fan Club" sends $1 to the club every time Chun makes a birdie in an official tournament and the club donates the collected money to the Korea University social responsibility program.
"She grew up in an environment where there were financial hardships," said Park. "She got a lot of support from really nice people, so now she wants to help others."
Last year, Chun wanted to contribute to an educational fund that could benefit caddies at Lancaster Country Club. She donated $10,000 to the J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust -- a foundation that serves numerous clubs in southeastern Pennsylvania.
But because of her own experience in Lancaster, she wanted to make sure her contributions were staying in the community and offering educational opportunities for young people there. That's when club board members and Chun's management came up with the idea to form their own joint foundation.
"It just goes to show that a desire to benefit young people and to promote education crosses all cultures," said Connaughton. "It's incredibly important to her."
During her return to Lancaster Country Club, Chun will play 27 holes of golf with members over two days, hold a press conference, conduct a junior clinic, and participate in a welcome reception, a cocktail party and a dinner in an effort to raise funds for the foundation. All of the events are sold out, with members eager to welcome back their champion.
"We're incredibly excited that she's coming back," added Kegel. "Lancaster is this little spot on the globe that she cares about, and there will absolutely be a group hug when she gets here."
"In Gee has an incredible amount of gratitude toward people she's touched on her way up," said Connaughton. "She's the kind of person who lights up the room when she walks in."
Or walks out into the world, sharing a little light wherever she goes.