K.J. Choi looks the part of a professional golfer who just stepped off the set of a James Bond film—a kind of secret agent who knows something you don’t, with a steely -eyed glare that silently yet clearly announces he means business on the golf course.
It’s intimidating to the competition.
But if you get to know the Wando, South Korean native, you’ll realize there’s also another side to his personality—one with a grateful smile, a nod of thanks and a gentlemanly tip of his visor.
He has developed a rapport with tournament patrons that has made him a fan favorite on the PGA Tour.
"Without the fans, we would be competing in a quiet arena by ourselves. How boring would that be?" Choi said in our exclusive interview for B/R. "I don't think what I do is special at all. It's just natural for me to acknowledge the fans that support me and cheer me on. If you think about it, these are people that don't even know me personally, but they are cheering me on. That alone is motivating and exciting to see, and I'm very appreciative of that."
Choi grew up the son of a farmer/fisherman. As a teenage power lifter, he earned the nickname "Tank" because he could squat 350 pounds, although he weighed a mere 95.
He didn't have the upper-body strength to pursue that sport, so upon the recommendation of one of his high school teachers, he turned to golf when he was 16 years old, studying Jack Nicklaus lesson books and videos and spending countless hours hitting practice balls on his island home's only practice range.
Eight years later, Choi became the first Korean to earn his PGA Tour card, and he has since won an impressive eight golf tournaments, including last month’s playoff victory at the Players Championship.
Currently No. 16 in the Official World Golf Ranking, Choi enters this week as one of the favorites to win the 111th playing of the U.S. Open Championship.
I spent some time chatting with him about his golf game and what his thoughts were regarding the possibility of winning his first major.
K.J., you’re having a great year—piling up top 10s, winning the coveted Players Championship and currently second on the money list. How do you feel about your game right now as you head into U.S. Open week?
I feel pretty good. I am still tired from all the traveling over the last month where I played four tournaments in a row, including a trip to Korea immediately after the Players Championship win.
I just need my body to get back to my normal state, fully rested. But mentally I have peace of mind. My swing and short game, although there is still room for improvement, is in much better shape than where it was a year ago.
The U.S. Open is typically described as a survival-of-the-fittest tournament—perhaps he who makes the fewest mistakes wins. How do you survive Congressional, one of the longest tracks in U.S. Open history?
The tee shots are very important. You need to be in the fairway. The rough will be dangerously long and hard to get out of. Whoever is able to stop their iron shots on the greens will determine the winner. You need to be able to spin the ball.
Do you feel more pressure in a major like the U.S. Open?
The U.S. Open is definitely the hardest major to win, along with its pressure. The rough is so deep. You feel the pressure when you're standing on the tee box. But if you're on the fairway, you'll be able to get it on the green. Tee shot to fairway is the key for me.
How do you deal with that tournament pressure—or the difficulty of making shots and putts down the stretch to win a golf tournament, like at the Players a few weeks ago?
I pray a lot. Praying gives me comfort. The Lord tells me not to get over my head. He prevents me from rushing into my shots and allows me to take a step back and ease my mind.
This is where I look to Joshua 1:9—"Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”
How important is it to you to win a major? Would your career be complete without one?
I have already achieved more than I could ask for in my career.
A boy from a small island in Wando, Korea—if you had told me then I would be one of the top players in the world with eight PGA Tour victories by 2011, I would have said you're crazy.
It would be great to win a major, but I don't live and die by it. After all, a major tournament is still another week of competitive golf. There are four tournaments in a year which are designated as majors.
Yes, I’d like to win one. And enjoying the benefits that come from winning a major is nice, too.
But what's important is that this is not what dictates who I am. What's important is that I know my game is good enough to win majors. Course changes and different setups are what make major tournaments a bit more special than normal events. However, even if I don’t win one, my life wasn’t bad at all.