K. J. Choi flits around the back room of the Golden Garden, a Korean restaurant nestled in a neon-blighted strip mall 15 minutes from Augusta National. One moment he's plying his three-year-old daughter, Amanda, with bites of rice. The next he's making faces at his one-year-old son, Daniel. In between he chats with a reporter in halting English and feasts with his wife, Hyun Jung Kim, and a half-dozen friends on kimchi, beef ribs, fried fish and every vegetable imaginable. As he juggles it all, you wait for some sign of exasperation because it's Friday night of
Masters week and Choi was only one hole into his second round when thunderstorms brought an end to the day's play. It has to be a chore to sit amid this chaos with a nerve-racking, 35-hole Saturday waiting for you in the morning. (He went on to finish 33rd with a six-over-par 294.) But Choi is unaffected, belting out a thunderclap of a laugh while watching his seven-year-old son, David, sleep at the table. The reason is simple: He'd rather be here, chasing his kids, than chasing birdies on the course where his life changed a year ago.
In this familial circus he can avoid his job's most trying demand--self-promotion. "K.J. has no interest in talking about himself," says his agent, Michael Yim. "When Se Ri Pak and all the other South Korean women started winning on the LPGA tour, the public wondered why K.J. didn't win more. K.J. could've pointed out how hard it is to win on the PGA Tour, but he didn't care. He lives for his family and to play golf."
Ordinarily, a player of Choi's caliber from a small, golf-mad country like South Korea would be stalked ceaselessly by the press. But while Choi is appreciated, he has not been the idol one would imagine, because when it comes to golf, South Koreans prefer their women. They were the ones, after all, who first found success on foreign shores. Led by Pak and others, South Koreans have been a growing force on the LPGA tour for a decade. By the time Choi arrived on the scene, becoming the first Korean to earn a PGA Tour card in 1999, the national preferences had already been set.
Even when Choi quickly achieved a slew of other Korean firsts--winning a Tour event (the 2002 Compaq Classic), a European tour event (the 2003 German Masters), earning a spot on a Presidents Cup team ('03) and cracking the top 30 of the World Ranking--he earned only a measure of admiration. In fact, after a final-round 69 pushed him to a third-place finish at the '04 Masters, Choi offered a wry smile when asked where his performance would appear in the next day's newspapers in South Korea. "Where do the women play this week?" he said.
Little did he realize that his breakthrough performance had turned the tide. South Korean golf fans, perhaps grown a bit jaded by the relentless success of the 28 South Koreans on the LPGA tour, have embraced the 36-year-old Choi like never before. "It's different for him now," Yim says. "Everything's changed--except K.J."
Today Choi is simply an older version of the patient, reserved boy he was growing up on remote Wando Island, an agricultural and fishing community, a six-hour drive south of Seoul. His parents were rice farmers, and K.J. was the oldest of their three kids. An avid athlete, Choi played soccer and baseball before turning to powerlifting as a 13-year-old. Despite his stocky build, his long arms impeded his progress, leading his coach to suggest that he try golf. So at 16 Choi picked up a golf club for the first time, learning the game at the island's only golf "facility," a makeshift range that was nothing more than a field bounded by fishermen's nets.
To actually play, Choi had to endure a four-hour commute (beginning at 3 a.m.) to the closest course, on the mainland in Kwangju. He would play until nightfall--he once played 72 holes in a single day--and return home at 11 p.m. He made the trip every day he could. "I loved to play," he says, "and I knew it was the only way to improve." The hardships paid off when he earned a scholarship to a high school near Seoul, where he lived and played on the golf team until his graduation at 18.
Then Choi had to shoulder the burden that awaits all South Korean males: mandatory three-year service in the military. Choi believes this policy has stunted the maturation of generations of South Korean sportsmen. "Those years are when you develop as a golfer," he says. "Plus [in the army] you work too hard to play your sport. I missed golf very much. Sometimes I would swing my rifle like a club. They thought I was crazy." He caught a break when certain high-ranking officers got wind of his talent and arranged for a plum assignment--teaching generals to play as the base golf pro.
He had similar good fortune when he left the army in 1989 to work as an assistant pro at various clubs around Seoul. Over the next five years sympathetic members picked up his greens fees, paid for his equipment and subsidized his travel to his first Asian tour events. "Even then K.J. had a two-, a three- and a 10-year plan," Yim says. "He was lucky to not have to worry--to see what he wanted and chase after it." Choi made the most of his chances, excelling first in tournaments in South Korea and then on the Asian tour before moving to the more lucrative Japanese tour in 1998.