PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Ho-Sung Choi was so excited to talk to the media Tuesday afternoon at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am that he ran from the player hospitality tent to the media center, a lengthy jaunt, when he could have just waited for a shuttle ride.
“It is my first time here in the United States, so I can't even put into words how incredibly happy and grateful I am to have this opportunity here,” he said through an interpreter.
When the likes of Aaron Rodgers, the All-Pro quarterback from the Green Bay Packers, requests to be paired with the late-blooming Korean sensation, it’s safe to say that the excitement is mutual. America is ready to embrace him.
Choi might not speak much English, but he is the undisputed World No. 1 in body language. His pirouetting, leg-kicking golf swing, a cross between the Gary Player walk-through and an Olympic ice dancer—called a “fisherman’s swing” in some circles—has caught the attention of golfers and fans the world over.
“I’m actually fascinated clearly by his swing and the way that he … moves around,” said former World No. 1 Jordan Spieth, who won here in 2017. “But I would almost say funniest … the most entertaining videos I've seen were actually some of his putts where he'll spin the way he wants the ball to start moving around and then when it goes in he'll give one of those kind of fist pumps and it's just, it's really entertaining.”
It also has been pretty effective. Choi, 45, is a two-time winner on the Japan Tour, having won most recently at the Casio World Open in November, and he is No. 194 in the Official World Golf Ranking. But it’s his penchant for natural showmanship with his homemade swing that made him a perfect fit for a sponsor’s exemption—adding another layer to an event famous for its inclusion of celebrities and entertainers.
Comedian Bill Murray once spun around an old lady in a bunker here. This guy needs no assistance, corkscrewing himself into a pretzel after most shots.
“I know sometimes after I've hit the ball I sometimes will the ball to go in the hole and in my mind I feel like that helps the ball go in the hole, so I'm going to keep doing that this week,” Choi explained. “And I feel like in my mind the way I move my body, sometimes it feels like I have remote control that wills the ball to go in the hole, so I'm going to keep doing that, because I feel like it helps.”
Choi is hardly self-conscious about how he looks on his full swing. He was happy to demonstrate it during his press conference, standing up on the dais to show the full move. The swing, he noted, was even wilder in his earlier years than it is now. It was born from hitting a shot out of the rough and following through with his whole body, something Tiger Woods has done routinely when he goes for extra speed from heavy lies. Choi, who averages about 280 off the tee, figures he gains an extra 10 yards from the pronounced action.
“I personally love my swing,” he said. “I didn't start golf until I was in my late 20s, so technically I didn't take any lessons growing up. But regarding flexibility or anything like that, I might not have as much compared to the other tour players, but I do what I can with what I have. And also with the advancement in technology and with how far these players are hitting it nowadays I needed to find my own unique way to get that extra distance. And by hitting it hard and by swinging hard I was able to swing the way I do right now, so that might result in to how I'm swinging it.”
It also results in delight from those who watch it.
“Yeah, I think it's great. I think it's unique, for sure. Nobody swings a golf club like that and I've never seen anybody move that way when they swing a golf club,” said U.S. Ryder Cup player Tony Finau. “I think it's great for the game, and obviously he's playing with Aaron Rodgers this week. And I was just with Aaron this morning, and he's excited to watch him play. I mean, how is that not really cool for our game to have someone like him wanting to play with someone like Ho-Sung Choi? So that's, I think he brings some excitement to this tournament. And as players it's really cool to see someone that that's different and that unique of a golf swing.”
Some guys would cut off their right arm to have a chance to play golf professionally. Choi cut off his right thumb.
As he tells the story, he went to school to specialize in a job in the fishing industry. When he was 23, he accidentally amputated a portion of his right thumb with a chain saw. (Somewhere Greg Norman is cringing knowingly.) Though the tip was reattached, Choi’s right thumb is shorter than his left. But from that mishap started his long road to an unlikely golf career. About two years after the accident, in 1995, he got a part-time job at a golf course. He said his responsibilities included “anything from from cleaning locker rooms to stocking vending machines, to taking the coins out of the vending machines. On hot summer days I would be the one responsible for putting the cold ice towels inside the locker, inside the ice boxes for the players.”
When the course opened a new practice area, the owner encouraged employees to learn the game. From these humble beginnings, a star was born – and the Internet sure helped. Everyone recognizes Choi, who actually will partner for three rounds with actor Chris O’Donnell. Rodgers and Wisconsin native Jerry Kelly, one of several Champions Tour players in the field, are paired with them. They are in the celebrity rotation, meaning Choi will likely get his share of airtime during Saturday’s CBS telecast from Pebble Beach.
Good thing he’s not shy – and that his real strength, he said, is his mental game. He doesn’t care what others think. He just wants to play.
“I haven't really thought about it,” he said when asked about how others might view him. “My only goal is to give it my all and to play my best when I'm on the golf course. I'm just not worrying about what other people say or do and just focusing on my own game.”
Before he left the dais, he was asked to demonstrate his swing one more time. He was only too happy to oblige, and he was so focused that once he was finished, he left behind his cell phone.