BY JAY A. COFFIN
Kyoung-Ju (K.J.) Choi remembers his first trip to the United States as if it were yesterday. It was to compete for the Republic of Korea in the 1997 World Cup at Kiawah Island, S.C.
That week in late November was when his professional career changed forever. Choi knew then that the PGA Tour was where golf’s elite reside.
“The driving range was so nice he felt he was destroying the grass and wounding the facility,” said Choi’s translator, Michael Yim. “He thought to himself, if this is the kind of service players get and this is what players go through every week, this is where I want to be.”
Choi flew back to Korea and immediately developed a 10-year plan, with the main objective to earn and keep his PGA Tour card. He qualified for the 2000 Tour via a 35th-place finish at the 1999 Q-School finals, becoming the first Korean to earn a Tour card.
“When I came to the U.S.,” Choi said, “I aimed to become a champion in 10 years.”
The plan paid dividends earlier than Choi expected when he won the Compaq Classic May 5 at English Turn Golf & Country Club. Choi, 31, shot 68-65-71-67 for a 17-under-par 271, good enough for $810,000 and a four-shot victory over Dudley Hart and Geoff Ogilvy.
Choi’s road to his first Tour title wasn’t always smooth. He had just one top-10 finish and came in 134th on the money list his rookie season, forcing him to return to Q-school and earn his 2001 card (tied for 31st). But he had five top-10 finishes a year ago, including a tie for fourth at Greensboro, lifting him to No. 65 in earnings and allowing him to keep his card for 2002.
Choi’s victory was viewed in his homeland, as Korean television officials scrambled to pick up the ABC television feed live for the final two rounds. Choi’s wife, Hyunjung Kim, flew in from their Texas home early Sunday morning to lend support.
Midway through the final round, the crowded leaderboard included 2001 Compaq champ David Toms, Dan Forsman, Phil Mickelson, Mike Sposa, John Cook, Bryce Molder and Chris DiMarco.
But each faltered on the final nine holes – mostly due to putting woes – and a wide- open tournament quickly turned into a Choi runaway.
Mickelson began the day six shots back, and birdied four of his first six holes. But a missed 5-footer for birdie on No. 9 seemed to annoy Mickelson, and he never mounted another charge.
It was Choi who best battled the heat and the slick greens. He rolled in birdies on Nos. 11 and 13 to open up a three-shot lead, then left a 123-yard approach shot on No. 16 less than an inch from the hole. Choi chipped in on No. 17 for birdie and made a meaningless bogey on the final hole to finish off the victory.
And cut his 10-year plan to four.