2002: Choi turns WGC bump into Tampa triumph

By Graham Elliott

Palm Harbor, Fla.

K.J. Choi was comfortably inside the top 30 on the PGA Tour earnings list when he returned to Korea for a break three weeks ago. While in his homeland he played the Korean Open, where he tied for sixth, but in the process lost a chance to play in the $5 million American Express Championship.

“When I went to Korea, I was 26th on the money list,” Choi said through an interpreter. “I didn’t think I would end up No. 31. I wasn’t aware of the whole situation.”

Choi missed qualifying for the WGC event in Kilkenny, Ireland, by one spot on the money list. But he took home a $468,000 “consolation prize” Sept. 22 at the Tampa Bay Classic by earning his second PGA Tour victory this year.

“I really wasn’t disappointed about not getting into the American Express Championship, but because it happened, it happened,” said Choi, whose seven-shot victory margin over Glen Day in Tampa is the season’s largest. “I just accepted it, and the only other alternative was to come back to the States to play in this tournament.”

Choi opened with an 8-under-par 63 at the Westin Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead course, taking a two-shot lead over Rod Pampling. Choi’s 63, which included nine birdies, one bogey and only 24 putts, broke Mike Hulbert’s 2000 Tampa Bay Classic record by one stroke.

“I live in Houston, and the courses there are similar,” Choi said. “When I won back in May at the Compaq Classic, the greens were very hard as well. I felt comfortable because I am used to playing these courses.”

A member’s bounce, coming at the par-4 18th hole in the second round, helped Choi finish with a birdie to maintain his two-shot lead at the midway point. Playing out of the rough, Choi hit his approach shot left. The ball hit a cart path and landed 3 feet from the hole.

Sleeping on the lead for the second consecutive night, not to mention a full stomach, thanks to the local Seoul Restaurant that he frequented all week, Choi added to his lead with a third-round 68. Heading into Sunday, Choi’s lead was five over Pat Perez.

“When I first started out the day, I did feel some pressure and uneasiness to be honest, but as the holes went by, I felt much more comfortable,” Choi said. “I just said to myself, ‘I’ll just take it hole by hole.’ ”

At No. 9, he was greeted by his wife, Hyun Jung Kim, and his son, David, who had flown in from Houston that morning. Choi’s 6-month-old daughter, Amanda, joined the party at 18 and was in her daddy’s arms shortly after he rolled in the final putt for his third 68 in a row and a 17-under 267.

“I played my best and the results were very good,” said Choi, who moved to No. 17 on the money list with $1,939,120. He is a lock to be on hand the next time the top 30 gather – late next month at the Tour Champ-ionship at East Lake outside Atlanta.

Day closed with a 2-under 69 to finish second at 10-under 274, one shot better than Mark Brooks, who shot 67.

“I did a lot of good things – K.J. just played awesome,” said Day, who recorded his best finish of 2002.

Perez, a candidate for PGA Tour rookie of the year, slipped to 74 Sunday and tied for seventh.

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