K.J. Choi was destined to become a late bloomer.
He was born in Wando, South Korea (population 30,000) – an island off the southern peninsula with only one bridge to the Korean mainland – and even official recognition of Choi’s birth was behind schedule. It took his parents two years to register his birth – May 19, 1968, as Kyoung-Ju Choi – because there was no convenient place to do so. Two years later, to the day, Choi’s parents registered him with the proper authorities. His birthdate is listed as May 19, 1970, although he’ll be 36 in three weeks.
“No problem with me,” he says with a smirk.
Choi, the son of a rice farmer, first picked up a golf club as a 16-year-old when a high school physical education teacher suggested he give the game a try. It wasn’t until Choi turned 20 that he even knew golf as a profession was an option.
The late bloomer turned into a quick learner.
Choi’s recent Sunday charge at the Masters should serve notice that he’s a major player on golf’s radar. He holed a 5-iron from 210 yards for eagle on Augusta National’s 490-yard 11th hole, propelling him to a back-nine 31 and a third-place finish behind Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, three shots clear of the next-closest finisher.
He’s not flashy. He doesn’t stroll the fairways with the swagger of Tiger Woods or command the support of a gallery the way Mickelson does. There isn’t much of a “wow” factor with Choi. He doesn’t hit the ball 320 yards off the tee like bombers John Daly or Hank Kuehne nor does he have the deft putting touch of Brad Faxon or Loren Roberts.
At the start of the 2002 season, he was ranked 191st in the world. Heading into last week’s Shell Houston Open, he was ranked 20th, ahead of better-known commodities such as Thomas Bjorn (29), Fred Couples (30), Charles Howell III (31), Justin Leonard (33) and Sergio Garcia (35). He ranked 22nd on the PGA Tour money list and already had three top-5 finishes this year.
Nicknamed “Tank” by a member of the gallery in Los Angeles three years ago because of his stocky appearance, Choi has developed into a player who finds a way to score even when he doesn’t have his best game. Pre-Houston, Choi was ranked 99th in driving distance, 69th in driving accuracy, 36th in greens in regulation and 48th in putting. Yet somehow he is 20th in scoring average (70.45) and has turned into the latest version of a human ATM.
“Winning isn’t important right now,” Choi said. “Being able to improve every year is what I want to do.”
Choi has worked feverishly with renowned swing coach Phil Ritson to improve a raw, self-made action that he brought from Korea.
What Ritson first saw nearly five years ago was an upright, steep swing that he dubbed “the elevator.” Choi had read everything he could that said “Jack Nicklaus” on it, but he modeled himself after Ian Woosnam, who has a similar build. But his swing wasn’t easy to correct because of the language barrier between him and Ritson, who would relay a swing tip to Choi through interpreters who often explained the thought incorrectly.
Once Ritson realized what was happening, he got Choi to choose the one interpreter who best knew golf and use him exclusively. That rectified the situation, and the two have been in sync since.
Another obstacle Choi needed to overcome had to do with his muscle mass. As a young powerlifter in Korea – when he was 13 and weighed only 95 pounds, he squatted 350 pounds – Choi developed great strength but his muscles were tight and compact, a condition detrimental for anyone seeking a long, fluid golf swing. Ritson and trainer David Darbyshire have worked tirelessly to develop Choi’s flexibility, which Choi says already has alleviated chronic lower-back pain on his 5-foot-8, 190-pound frame.
“There are a lot of guys who come to the Tour with a world-class swing.” said Ritson, who has worked with fellow South African Gary Player among others. “K.J. came here with nothing and worked his way up. He’s very dedicated and wants to get better. It is very easy to see the results of that.
“Within two years, I guarantee you he’ll be ranked in the top 10. He’s that good.”
Meanwhile, Choi slowly has found his comfort level in the United States. Unlike the LPGA, which has more than 20 Korean members, the PGA Tour has one Korean: Choi. For men, Choi explained, it is not a simple decision to uproot a family and relocate to a foreign country.
“For a woman, mostly it’s only them that has to adjust,” said Choi, who travels with his agent, IMG’s Michael Yim, to help translate during extensive interviews. “For men, they have to give up a lot and adjust to a whole different environment for them and their entire family. It is not an easy thing to do.”
Choi’s breakthrough professional victory came in the 1996 Korean Open. Three international victories in 1999 prompted Choi to take his game to the ultimate level, the PGA Tour. With his wife Hyungjung Kim’s blessing, Choi moved his family – sons David (6) and Daniel (4 months), and daughter Amanda (2) – to Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., for a year before settling in The Woodlands outside Houston.
His children are happy, growing up in America, in a nice neighborhood. They, like their father, will one day have the opportunity to chase the American dream.
These days, many roads lead to the PGA Tour, even those traveled over a single bridge in Korea.