Reason To Smile
Comfortable on tour and in his new land, Korean K.J. Choi wants to be the first Asian male to win a major
"Soccer mom," says K.J. Choi from behind the wheel of his black Escalade. The phrase is 21st century Americana, and so is Choi, cruising through the Houston suburbs in his SUV. The ride is tricked up, with chrome wheels and a killer sound system, but Choi has the volume turned down this February morning. In the captain's chairs are his kids and their friends, all part of a car pool. The soccer-mom reference is Choi poking fun at himself, and as with many of his sentences, K.J. punctuates his shortened English with a laugh.
The 37-year-old Korean (K.J. stands for Kyoung-Ju) is a happy man, both inside and out. In 2007 he won Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament and Tiger Woods' AT&T National, and in 2008 Choi is coming off an extremely strong West Coast swing, with his seventh career PGA Tour victory at the Sony Open, a top-10 in the Northern Trust Open and a quarterfinal loss to Woods in the WGC-Accenture Match Play. The Tank, as he is known, is ranked fifth in the world and heads toward the Masters hoping to be the first Asian male to win a major. Players from Woods on down think he's one of the nicest guys in the game -- and they are inspired by his story. Extremely devout, from a land that never produced a world-class male golfer before he came along, Choi became a national hero by crossing an ocean, overcoming cultural barriers and immersing himself into the American way of life. Of his career and success, Choi says quite simply, "God made it."
"You've got to keep smiling, and that's where K.J. is at his best," says his Scottish caddie Andy Prodger, who notes there is only one thing that perturbs his man. "He hates people swearing. He can't understand why people swear."
The morning starts with a traditional Korean breakfast on what is the lunar New Year, Feb. 6. Choi's wife, Kim, has made dduk guk, a soup of rice cakes with a dark broth, and a side dish of noodles. There is a stool waiting at the kitchen counter, next to their precocious 10-year-old son, David, who plays cello in his school's orchestra, second base for the youth baseball team and speaks perfect English. "This is where family sits," says K.J., motioning to a place setting at the counter. After eating we head to the car, and Kim hands us Styrofoam cups filled with peeled apple slices, each with its own toothpick.
Of the Far Eastern golfers who tried the PGA Tour before Choi, none were able to embrace the American way. But Choi jumped right in, with both feet.
Climbing into the Escalade, K.J. says, "We speak three languages, Korean, English and Spanish." It is a reference to his housekeepers, who are of Mexican descent. Again, he laughs. David adds another language, "We call it Konglish," he says, of his mixture of Korean with American colloquialisms.
In Korea, Choi requires bodyguards and gets parades in his hometown on the island of Wando off the country's southwest coast. In America, he lives at the end of a cul-de-sac in the gated community of Carlton Woods, the upper crust of The Woodlands, on a course designed by Jack Nicklaus, his idol and teacher. "My home is America," he says later that morning at his kitchen table, sipping coffee.
We drive around the entire day, burning half a tank of gas and filling a notebook. We begin talking without an interpreter before Michael Yim, Choi's agent, arrives mid-morning on a flight from Cleveland. We talk as Choi drops off his 6-year-old daughter, Amanda, at the little red Paddington British Private School and 4-year-old son, Daniel, at the Crossroads Baptist Church. We talk while shuttling David to Best Buy to purchase a Guitar Hero game and speakers for an iPod. We talk about his life in Wando and his first trip to the U.S., when the driving range at Kiawah Island was so green and lush he was afraid to take a divot while swinging at the piles of new Titleists. "Like carpet," he says. "In Korea [it looks] like that." He motions toward the crabgrass along the side of the road to illustrate his point, then taps his knuckles on the leather dashboard, describing the hardscrabble lies he used to get on the Korean Tour.