Dave Hunter’s first impression of Sean Yi was watching him chip and putt at one of the Thomas Jefferson High School golf team’s practices.
There Yi was, practicing, when Hunter teed off for nine holes. And there he was when Hunter returned, still perfecting his craft.
Never mind that Yi was in the seventh grade at the time and was there only because his older sister, Hanna, was on the high school team.
“I knew then that he was going to be good someday,” Hunter said. “Because he had the ability to practice — and practice for a long time.”
The impression reminded Hunter, who is entering his 17th year as Jefferson’s coach, of two current pro golfers he got to watch back when they were in high school — Puyallup’s Ryan Moore and Curtis’ Michael Putnam.
I don’t think Sean’s game is that far behind where theirs was. The question is whether or not Sean can develop the confidence to get to the next level.
Jefferson coach Dave Hunter, on comparing Sean Yi to former Puyallup golfer Ryan Moore and former Curtis golfer Michael Putnam
“I don’t think Sean’s game is that far behind where theirs was,” said Hunter, who was a classmate of Moore’s father, Mike, at Jefferson. “The question is whether or not Sean can develop the confidence to get to the next level.
“But as far as his ability to hit the ball and his length and all that — there isn’t much difference.”
Yi has placed no lower than sixth at the 4A state championships each of the past three years.
But there’s more to him than golf.
Yi is committed to Yale University, has never earned anything lower than A’s in his classes and is Jefferson’s student body vice president.
“Sometimes in school I hear things like, ‘Oh, you’re the golf star,’ and things like that,” Yi said. “As much as I appreciate that, golf isn’t my life. It’s not everything about me. I love God, I love my family and my friends, and I love playing other sports. I love basketball, and I used to play baseball and soccer, too.”
At 5-foot-8, the 135-pound senior’s size is not a factor in how he drives a golf ball.
He said he was consistently hitting about 300 yards this offseason. It became a focus when he found himself 10-15 yards behind his competitors at American Junior Golf Association tournaments. He’s sought help over the years from Dusty Brett, a former state champion for Bellarmine Prep who went on to play at Stanford.
“I was a really scrawny kid,” Yi said. “I just made it a goal to get a little bigger and stronger. During the offseason I really worked out, got stronger with my core and my legs. That was the main thing, was being able to really add that extra pop in my swing.”
Yi, who was born in Federal Way, said he began playing about the age of 5 while living near Dallas. His father, Andrew, is a pastor, so the family moved around — California, Texas and New Jersey before heading back to the South Sound during Yi’s middle school years. It’s a topic, Yi said, about which he’s writing his college essay.
Yi’s parents were born in South Korea and moved to Oregon when they were youths. Andrew Yi is now the pastor at Hebron Christian Reformed Church in Fife.
State bound Jefferson senior Sean Yi has qualified for the 4A state boys golf championships in each of the past three years. Here’s how he’s fared: 2016: Fifth place 75 72 — 147 At Meadow Springs Golf Course, Richland 2015: Sixth place 72 70 — 142 At The Creek at Qualchan, Spokane 2014: Second place 69 77 — 146 At Camas Meadows Golf Course, Camas
Both Sean and his sister grew up playing golf. Hanna is entering her second year at the University of Washington after qualifying for the 4A state girls golf tournament all four years at Jefferson, placing as high as seventh as a junior.
Sean joined the team the next year and made an indelible first impression on the state. He shot an opening-round 3-under-par 69 at Camas Meadows Golf Course, leading by two strokes with one round to go.
“He didn’t even know what he was doing,” Hunter said. “He was just all of a sudden making everything.”
He followed with a 6-over 77 to finish tied for second, four strokes behind Lynnwood’s Rudy Caparas.
Yi placed sixth the next year at the Creek at Qualchan in Spokane, three strokes out of the lead. He took fifth last year at Meadow Springs Golf Course in Richland, two strokes out of reaching the playoff.
So there’s really only one thing left to do — win that elusive state title.
“More than anything I would love to win state and have that as an accomplishment,” Yi said. “But I also want to just keep enjoying the high school experience like I have.
“I’ve learned that I need to be my own best friend, being kind to yourself out there and have more fun while I’m at it.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677