Korean 'tank' tearing up courses in America
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By Bill Kwon
Special to The Advertiser
KAPALUA, Maui By now, golf fans are familiar with the impact of Korean golfers on the LPGA Tour, notably Se Ri Pak, Mi Hyun Kim, Grace Park and Hee-Won Han.
Until recently, only women. No Korean men. Well, not anymore.
Move over, ladies. The South Koreans have finally found their leading man in Kyoung-Ju Choi, the first from his country to win a PGA Tour event with a victory in the Compaq Classic in New Orleans last May. He showed it was no fluke, winning his second in the Tampa Bay Classic in joining Tiger Woods as the only other golfer to post wire-to-wire victories in 2002.
The breakthrough victories qualified Choi to play in the Mercedes Championships, and he's making the most of the opportunity.
Choi shot his second straight 6-under 67 for a 36-hole total of 134 for third place, five strokes behind leader Ernie Els going into today's third round at the Plantation Course.
"Good scoring," said Choi, who had three two-putt birdies in his bogey-free round. He didn't think Els or Bob Estes, who's second at 132, are too far ahead to catch.
"Not too much with two rounds to go," said Choi, 32, who's known as K.J. But his fellow PGA peers also call him "Tank", which perfectly describes the 5-foot-8, 185-pound former weightlifter, who took up golf at the age of 16.
Starting to catch on
Choi thanks his high school physical education teacher for a suggestion which transformed his life.
"He told me to take up golf. More money than weightlifting. Good advice," said Choi, who's in his third full year on the PGA Tour and fast picking up the English language. And, he's got the golf lingo down pat.
Personable and outgoing, Choi doesn't need an interpreter to make himself understood, although he'll ask his manager, Michael Yim, to interpret when posed with more difficult questions.
He had a simple explanation for his two victories last year. He earned $2.2 million and moved up to 41st in the world rankings.
"I like Bermuda greens. I live in Houston, so I'm used to it. My two wins were on Bermuda greens," said Choi, aware that's the surface at the Plantation Course and the Waialae Country Club next week.
Also told that the centennial celebration of Koreans coming to Hawai'i is this month, Choi beamed, saying it would be appropriate if he wins the Sony Open in Hawai'i.
"I felt very proud when I won (at New Orleans), proud to be the first Korean," said Choi, who received a personal achievement award from South Korean President Kim Dae- jung in Seoul last November.
First of many
"The second win had very much more pressure," he said. "First win just happens, no pressure. But I had a narrow focus, concentrated very good because it is always hard to win a second tournament."
Now a pioneer in Korean men's golf, Choi is looking forward to being joined by more Koreans on the PGA Tour in the future.
He felt his breakthrough victory made a huge impact on his countrymen back home. The final two rounds were televised live beginning at 4 in the morning in South Korea.
Choi believes his success will influence more Korean men to take up golf and try to play on the American tour. "In that sense the win is very special," he said.
A couple of golfers are now very close, according to Choi.
One of them is Han Lee, 25, an Ernie Els-sized 6 feet 3, who will be playing on the Nationwide Tour this year. Another is S.K. Ho, Choi's partner in the World Cup in which South Korea finished third.
Both Lee and Ho didn't make it out of the recent Q-School.
They can do it with a couple more years of experience, according to Choi, who had to go to qualifying school twice himself.
Talk of town
If he continues his rapid rise, Choi will more than rival Pak in the hearts of their countrymen, according to Yim, a native Korean who grew up in Georgia.
"The LPGA is old news now in Korea because of K.J. He's the new trail blazer."
Choi even had a Web site solely devoted to him: The Ultimate K.J. Choi Fan Site (kjchoi.net).
Not bad for the son of a rice farmer from Wando, an island off the southeastern coast of the Korean peninsula. And listening to his old high school phys-ed teacher to take up golf certainly proved to be wise advice.