K.J. Has His Way
Tiger Woods' AT&T National makes its debut, and K.J. Choi handles a tough Congressional track to claim the title
On a U.S. Open course, in weather that was Ken Venturi hot, a Korean they call Tank with a putter grip the size of a kimchi jar and a driver as square as his jaw, kept his game about him while everyone else was losing theirs to capture the second leg of the Immortal Slam by winning the inaugural AT&T National brought to you by Tiger Woods hisownself.
A month or so ago, K.J. Choi began his assault on Mount Olympus when he won Jack Nicklaus' Memorial. It was Nicklaus' Golf My Way that started Choi on his. The Korean didn't have any literary ties to Woods, but he did notice Tiger's brand new trophy was a little heavier than Jack's old one. With Woods and Nicklaus scratched off the list, one can only wonder who's next. Anybody know if Bobby Jones has a tournament?
In order to accept the trophy from his second golfing deity in as many months, Choi had to beat one of the tour's best putters, Steve Stricker, on the lumpy, bumpy, slow-dance greens at Congressional CC. Everyone else pretty much beat themselves. Choi did it with a putting aid of his own, the Super Stroker, a device that increases the circumference of his putter grip to roughly the size of a Kosher salami. He saw it one night on an infomercial. Honest. One imagines Choi's garage back in Texas must be full of Thighmasters, ThermoSlim, Ab Energizers and Seven-Day Miracle Cleanse. Can you get any more American than that?
On the way to the scoring trailer near the 18th green to post his winning total of nine-under-par 271, three shots clear of Stricker, Choi was greeted by His Hostness, whose first words to his first champion were in Korean. When asked what Tiger told him, Choi interpreted, "He say, 'unbelievable golf.' " And it was, in more ways than one.
Choi went into the final round two shots behind Stuart Appleby. This, as they say, is where it gets ugly. Appleby, the affable Australian with the three-quarters Charley Hoffman hairdo and the close friendship with The Host, came apart in a most disturbing way. It was as if he was opening a set of Chuckie nesting dolls. On the 16th tee Saturday, Appleby discovered a hairline crack in the face of his Bridgestone J33P driver. He had a pair of replacements overnighted for the final round. It was an inconvenience, certainly, but his problems Sunday had nothing to do with a driver.
On the par-3 second, Appleby's tee shot missed the green 39 yards left. He pitched on and three-putted for double bogey to fall into a tie with Choi at seven under. On the fourth he used a hybrid off the tee and knocked it into the left rough, hit a 9-iron into the greenside bunker and made bogey while Choi birdied for another two-shot swing. On the fifth hole Appleby hit a 3-wood into the middle of the fairway, knocked it on the middle of the green and three-putted for another bogey. On the long and difficult sixth, a converted par 5, he drove it in the left rough and had to lay up short of the water fronting the green. Another bogey. On the par-3 seventh his tee shot was 65 feet from the hole. Another three-putt. Suddenly, Appleby was six over through seven holes.
At Augusta Appleby led going into the last round, doubled the first and the 12th and finished T-7. In Houston, trailing by one, he hit his second shot on the 72nd hole out of a fairway bunker and into the water after the eventual winner, Adam Scott, had done the same thing with his drive. At first blush the collapse at Congressional seems worse than either of those--except in suburban D.C. his misery had plenty of company. The rough was deep enough and the greens hip-hop enough, everyone seemed to be coughing up shots. Even the champion.
With Appleby on life support, Choi got to nine under with a birdie on the eighth when he wedged to five feet. This tied the Korean with Stricker, who also had birdied the eighth and was out in three-under-par 32. At this point Choi and Stricker (one twosome ahead) were four shots clear of the field, not nearly enough given greens on which even The Host couldn't buy a three-footer if he had been using Poa annua chits.
Stricker's birdie at the eighth proved to be his last of the day. Choi gave shots back when he three-putted the 10th and missed the 11th green 37 yards left with a 4-iron. While the two leaders struggled, Mike Weir and Jim Furyk clawed their way into contention. At five under , Furyk couldn't convert birdie chances on the 12th and 13th, then three-putted the 14th to end his run. Weir got to six under before an unlucky break--his tee shot on the 13th hung up in the fringe above the hole instead of feeding back down to it--began a three-hole bogey stretch that doomed him.
After Choi's opening bogeys on the back nine, he ran in a 25-footer for birdie on the 12th to get back to eight under par. He bogeyed the 13th with another three-putt then saved par on the 14th after popping up his tee shot and barely reaching the fairway. His 5-wood second carried farther than his drive for a routine two-putt par. Meanwhile, Stricker started visiting Congressional's thick rough and bogeyed the 14th and 15th to drop back to six under . When Choi birdied the 15th with a pitching wedge to 12 feet, he was two clear again and no one behind him seemed to have any game left in the tank. Choi added his exclamation point when he hit his 5-iron into the greenside bunker on the 17th and took the bumpy greens out of play by holing it.