He means it as a compliment, a testament to her importance.

"Tammy Cho is about all we've got," North County golf coach Nelson Martin likes to say. "She is North County golf."

Such a kind thought; such a harsh effect. Cho, a junior, competed at the state tournament this week for the third straight year. And, for the third straight year, she carried with her an unenviable burden: the weight of an entire school.

Cho is just the second North County golfer in school history to qualify for the state tournament, a two-day event that is scheduled to be completed today. So even when she goes with modest expectations -- to shoot in the mid-80s -- pressure seems to find her.

"I'm carrying the torch," Cho said. "I never feel nervous for myself. But sometimes I worry about letting down the school and my family. All the focus is on me."

She's become so accustomed to the pressure that she's learned to thrive in spite of it. As a freshman, she arrived at North County an unlikely star: She had played golf for only a few years, never all that seriously. But at a school where the golf team is made up of curious beginners, Cho's limited experience made her a standout.

For three straight years, she's qualified alone at North County for the state tournament. This year, she shot a 96 at the District V Tournament -- and the score still registered as one of North County's best in recent history.

"It's so important for the other kids to see somebody play like that," said Martin, the only golf coach in school history. "North County is a working-class area, and golf is not the most important sport. Tammy's our role model. That comes with a little pressure."

Pressure, Cho said, is one thing she'd learned to deal with long before North County. The youngest of seven children, Cho gets plenty of attention in a tight-knit Korean family. Her parents work 50-hour weeks so their youngest daughter can succeed. "Our lives are not important," said Patti Cho, Tammy's mother. "We're only worried about her."

When Cho needs new golf clubs, her mother works extra hours at the local beauty shop to pay for them. When she needs a ride to practice, her dad misses work to get her there.

"Sometimes I'm worried," Tammy Cho said, "about how I can pay them back."

Here's what she's come up with so far:

Academically, she's ranked second in her class. She's the president of the school orchestra, and is an accomplished pianist and violinist. She spends her afternoons golfing in hopes that, one day, she'll be offered a scholarship. After college -- at either Harvard or Stanford, she says -- she hopes to become a Supreme Court justice.

A few nights before the state tournament, she got so caught up in her homework that she managed just 30 minutes of sleep.

"She gets extremely upset when she doesn't achieve the goal," Martin said. "She just tries a little harder, and she works at it so much. She just does it again and again until she does it right."

Said Cho: "I know if I work hard now, maybe the future will be easier. I'm not even doing it for myself, really. I'm doing it for other people, like my school and my family."