K.J. Choi's win in New Orleans was a hit here and abroad
Two weeks ago Juli Inkster traveled to the Korean Open and
marveled at the quantum leap the country had made in golf
development since her last visit, in 1996. "We have only begun
to see the great players that they have," Inkster said following
her victory at the Chick-fil-A Charity Championship in
Stockbridge, Ga., where four of the top 11 finishers were South
Korean. "They are going golf crazy over there."
The Koreans have been a dominant story in women's golf for the
last five years, as Se Ri Pak, Mi Hyun Kim, Grace Park and others
have threatened Sweden's reign as the LPGA's global superpower.
Absent from all the excitement has been a leading man--until last
week, when 31-year-old Kyoung-Ju (K.J.) Choi became the first
Korean to win on the PGA Tour, with a dazzling performance at the
Compaq Classic at New Orleans.
At first blush Choi's four-stroke victory was a stunner, but he
had, in fact, been building toward it for years. A onetime
powerlifter, the 5'8", 185-pound Choi was introduced to golf by a
high school teacher on his home island of Wando, and he modeled
his swing after another little big man, Ian Woosnam. After honing
his game across Asia, Choi earned a spot on the PGA Tour at the
1999 Q school and soon established a beachhead at The Woodlands,
Texas, along with his wife, Hyunjung (Kim), and son Hohjun
Choi improved from 134th on the money list in 2000 to 65th last
year. His game began to sing last month at the BellSouth Classic,
after he put new shafts in his clubs and found a perfect harmony
to go with his sweet tempo. He tied for eighth at the BellSouth,
and two weeks ago, in Greensboro, tied for seventh.
Choi took control of the Compaq on Friday, navigating burned-out
greens in blustery conditions to shoot a seven-under 65, the low
round of the day. He held on to his one-stroke lead with a
third-round 71 and on Sunday was almost flawless, driving the
ball beautifully and finishing with a flourish, including a
chip-in on 17 on the way to a 67.
Choi earned $810,000 for the victory, but it was worth more to
the people of South Korea, where the final two rounds were
televised live beginning at 4 a.m. "I believe it will influence a
generation of Korean golfers to come to the U.S. and try out for
the PGA Tour," Choi said on Sunday through an interpreter. "In
that sense the win is very special."
Choi may be destined to rival Pak in the hearts of their
countrymen, but he already has a cult following here. Says his
caddie, Steve Underwood, "About half the cities we visit have a
large contingent of Koreans, and he's befriended most of them."
Choi's host last week was native South Korean Kim Chi, 45, who
owns a local jewelry store. Every night Chi's wife, Sophia,
cooked dinner for Choi and a small group of guests from the
Korean community. Over the final rounds Choi had a small but
boisterous gallery cheering him on, and their number swelled by
one when his wife flew in from Houston on Sunday morning.
Watching her husband putt on the 72nd hole, Kim drew a laugh with
a whispered comment. The translation? "She said she's been
practicing hugging him." Korea, too, is ready to embrace its
latest golfing hero.
The most anticipated nonmajor of the year is this week's Byron
Nelson Classic. The field's great and it's nice to see Lord
Byron, but what matters more is that it ends the deadly
post-Masters lull and begins the run-up to the U.S. Open.
Bruce Lietzke is an unlikely motivational source, but the
celebrated slacker has apparently talked his old University of
Houston roommate, Bill Rogers, into teeing it up more often on
the Senior tour. Rogers, 50, ended a decadelong hiatus from
competitive golf last month after weekly phone calls by Lietzke
persuaded him to play at the Legends of Golf. They partnered to
win the 36-hole team division, with Rogers shooting a 67 on his
own ball during the second round. Now Rogers tells SI that he's
planning to play in the Senior PGA Championship, June 6-9 at
Firestone Country Club in Akron, site of his victory, at the 1981
World Series of Golf. "Bruce has got my thought process turned
around," says Rogers, who would be eligible for most 2003 Senior
events under a new exempt status for former PGA Tour winners. "A
year ago I wouldn't have even considered playing in the Senior
The best party of Compaq Classic week came on Monday at Razoo's,
a nightclub on Bourbon Street, where a motley crew of players
and caddies convened. Second-year pro John Rollins was the
unofficial champ in the Jell-O shooters contest.
The buzz last week at the Chick-fil-A was about a new mixed-team
event in December that will pair LPGA stars with their senior
counterparts. The as-yet-unannounced tournament is slated to be
held in Guadalajara, Mexico, and the most intriguing team being
discussed is local girl Lorena Ochoa, who is expected to turn
pro imminently, and Nancy Lopez. There is also talk of another
new team event for next February, a coed senior tournament that
would be played in Hawaii.
Lopez on why LPGA players shouldn't pose for Playboy: "I know
when my daughters see uncovered breasts they call the woman a
Last week's annual meeting of the American Society of Golf
Course Architects drew the usual suspects to Santa Barbara,
Calif.--including Rees Jones and incoming president Jay
Morrish--but one surprise guest was USGA technical director Dick
Rugge. "It was a chance to listen to some of the USGA's
constituents," Rugge tells SI. In his address to the society
Rugge said that existing USGA rules will serve "as a ceiling
that will soon be reached."
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TWO COLOR PHOTOS: JIM GUND (2) Support groupChoi (right) enjoyed home cooking and hurrahs from fellow Koreans.
COLOR PHOTO: GARY NEWKIRKGoing southLopez may be headed to Mexico for a new event.