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 Chickfil-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 (David), 5.
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.