K.J. Choi would never have been anyone's pick to win The Players Championship. He was so far under the radar that he would have been below ground.
The "smart" money was on Luke Donald; the sentimental money was on Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. But Woods pulled out after nine holes, and Mickelson could not craft a birdie barrage that lasted despite posting a 31 for one nine.
So when Choi and former PGA Champion David Toms ended up in a playoff at the infamous 17th hole, it was perhaps a surprise to non-golf fans, but not to Choi or Toms.
Toms, winner of 12 PGA Tour titles, recently regained interest in his game because his 13-year old son has started playing.
Choi is a different story entirely. He took up golf at age 16 and studied Golf My Way by Jack Nicklaus. Choi turned pro in 1994 and moved to the US in 1999. In the fall of that year, he entered the PGA Q- school and tied for 35th, which earned him a playing card for 2000.
Choi succeeded starting with little knowledge of the language or culture in the U.S. but wanting to play golf on the PGA Tour. Choi moved to Jacksonville, Fl, Ponte Vedra Beach's next door neighbor, and used to practice at TPC Sawgrass.
"When I first joined the Tour, moved over here in 1999, this course—my level of talent golf-wise wasn't good enough to shoot under par on this course," Choi admitted about the TPC Sawgrass. "When you practice in Korea, the only practice driving range you have is like indoor driving ranges where there's no wind."
With the help of a seasoned caddie, Andy Prodger, who was on Nick Faldo's bag for his first Masters victory, Choi has become a veteran winner. Sunday, he outplayed all the household names, major champs and wanna-be winners.
"Andy is like my wife," Choi said about his trusted associate. "When I'm not playing well, he's got a lot of humor. He cracks jokes and makes me feel better."
Choi also had a 15th club from some self-appointed fans called "Choi's Bois" who were decked out in T-shirts. The group had been making annual trips to The Players for several years, and took a liking to Choi's on course attitude because he smiled even when he made bogey. They felt that was the right attitude to have and decided to call themselves "Choi's Bois."
They didn't know him. He didn't know them.
"For them to come all the way from Tennessee to watch me play, imagine. I have no relationship with them. This is the first time I've ever seen them," Choi admitted.
While the The Players went to a playoff between Choi and veteran David Toms, had Choi made some short putts earlier in the round, he would have been leading coming to the final holes. He missed two six footers for birdie and one for par in the final 18 holes. Toms made everything he needed to make until the 17th hole in the playoff.
Toms made no excuses. At the16th hole, a par five which can yield birdie or even eagle on occasion, he tried to go for the green with his second shot using a fairway wood. It leaked a little to the right and missed finding land by a yard or two, dropping Toms from -13 to -12.
That opened the door for Choi. Toms said that he just did not pay enough attention to the put on the first playoff hole. Choi become the first Korean and first Asian to win the PGA Tour's biggest event.
Here are Choi's other victories: 2002 Compaq Classic of New Orleans and Tampa Bay Classic presented by Buick; 2005 Chrysler Classic of Greensboro; 2006 Chrysler Championship; 2007 the Memorial Tournament presented by Morgan Stanley and AT&T National; and 2008 Sony Open in Hawaii.
Ten Things learned at The Players:
1.We learned that Tiger Woods' knee and Achilles tendon are not ready for tournament golf.
2. Mark O'Meara has reached out to Tiger Woods, extending the hand of friendship once again.
3. A golf course does not have to be 7,500 yards to be a good test of golf and to produce exciting finishes.
4. You can break your putter in half one day and still finish in the top 30, like Charley Hoffman did.
5. Maybe the 17th is not so hard after all: Brian Gay birdied it in the first three rounds and had a par on Sunday.
6. 16th, 17th and 18th at The Players are still the biggest thrill rides in the sport.
7. Nobody said golf was fair, and TPC Sawgrass proves it every year. Just ask Graeme McDowell.
8. K.J. Choi showed once again that guys in their 40s can win the biggest tournaments.
9. Graeme McDowell has not yet regained all of his form from 2010, but he's getting very close.
10. Paul Goydos' tie with Sergio Garcia in 2008 was no fluke.