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Published: Monday, 6/4/2007

Choi learned lessons well from Nicklaus

DUBLIN, Ohio - When Kyoung-Ju Choi was 13 years old and all of 95 pounds, he competed as a weightlifter and squatted 350 pounds. Someone nicknamed him "Tank."

When he was 16 years old, a physical education instructor in his hometown of Wando, South Korea, handed Choi a book on golf, one that happened to be written by Jack Nicklaus.

Yesterday, at the age of 37, Choi was handed a check by Nicklaus that it took a Tank to haul away.

Yep, the Memorial Tournament offered another of those feel-good finishes. Young boy reads a book written by a legend and is inspired to become a golfer and someday wins a tournament hosted by the very same legend and, just maybe, becomes a legend himself.

"No, no legend," K.J. Choi said, a bit embarrassed.

"I was in Korea three weeks ago," said Nicklaus, "and, believe me, K.J. is very, very big over there."

He's bigger today, we can presume, after winning the biggest tournament of his career.

Choi has no idea why his teacher selected him to read the book. But the man told him, "This is written by a verrrrry famous golfer."

It was, Choi said through an interpreter, a book on the basic fundamentals, filled with pictures illustrating the stance, the proper grip, and the swing plane. It had been translated into Korean.

"That's how I really got into golf, so thank you, Jack," Choi said, sitting next to Nicklaus with the crystal Memorial trophy on a table between them.

"You're entirely welcome," Nicklaus said.

He first read the book, probably Nicklaus' Golf My Way, at the age of 16. He spent hour after hour, day after day, hitting shots at the only driving range on Wando, an island region reached only by ferry. He broke par for the first time at the age of 21 and turned pro when he was 24.

Now, Choi has amassed more than $13 million in earnings just on the PGA Tour, where he won for the fifth time yesterday. That goes with six international victories and his Nike sponsorship deal and, well, like his teacher told him 20 years ago, you can have a good future if you learn to play golf.

There have been a number of Asian-born golfers to play on the PGA Tour. You've heard of Japan's Isao Aoki and his countryman Jumbo Ozaki. Who can forget the good-natured, always-laughing Shingo Katayama and his big cowboy hat? Or a current popular tour player, Shigeki Maruyama, who was nicknamed the "Smilin' Assassin" by his tour brethren?

"You look at the success all those Asian players had on the PGA Tour and nobody's close to K.J.," Nicklaus said.

Choi played in the Memorial for the first time in 1999 and made the cut. That Friday night he called the on-site tour office to find out what his tee time was for Saturday's third round. The woman on the other end of the phone gave him the time and said, "You're paired with Mr. Nicklaus."

K.J. barely slept that night.

"I was nervous," he said. "It was the thought of playing with a legend. But Jack was very nice to me. We talked and he gave me a lot of advice. He treated me like his son. It was a very good experience."

Nothing like the last four days, though.

"It's hard to describe," Choi said, slipping a glance at Nicklaus. "This is Jack's tournament. Winning is great honor."



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