Easy-going Choi finding the going easier with reshaped swing

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The Players Championship had been over for perhaps 10 minutes and Steve Bann was talking excitedly to his wife, who was back home in Australia, about what he had just witnessed.

And by that, we mean he was on the TPC Sawgrass property, with the two combatants well within his range of vision, as the heat was turned up to maximum boil.

One of the longtime swing coach's pupils, K.J. Choi, was facing a must-make par putt on the 72nd hole and had already missed three times from roughly the same range over the previous nine holes. This time, he needed to make the putt to force a sudden-death playoff with David Toms, who had just rocked the joint by making a clutch 17-foot birdie effort to put the pressure squarely back on Choi.

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The place still buzzing around him, Bann took a deep breath as he tried to describe over the phone what his client had just accomplished. There was one problem -- parts of it were a tad indescribable.

"That five-footer he made after David made that birdie putt on the last, I didn't want to look," Bann said into his cell phone. "I didn't want to look. In fact, I still don't know what happened because I didn't look."

It wasn't always pretty, especially on the greens, but the stocky South Korean they nicknamed the Tank finally broke a three-year victory drought when he came from behind on Sunday to beat Toms on the first extra hole, securing the biggest of his eight PGA Tour titles by far.

Choi, who has led on the back nine at the Masters in each of the past two years, finally was able to finish the task, though it was due in part to Toms, who missed a 3½ footer on the first hole of the playoff.

The uncomfortable ending was enough to send at least six guys home happy. Five years ago, Nashville residents Bobby Page and his son, Bo, started attending the Sawgrass event, and they noticed that no matter how he was playing, Choi was always one of the friendliest guys on the course.

"We noticed how genuinely nice he was, in a good mood, even when he was playing bad," Bobby Page said.

'Choi's Bois' pose for a picture during the final round of the Players Championship. (Getty Images)  
'Choi's Bois' pose for a picture during the final round of the Players Championship. (Getty Images)  
This year, the Pages and five others decided to have some T-shirts made that read "Choi's Bois," and when Choi approached them before the final round began and suggested they all take a photo together, they were ecstatic.

"We figured we'd go down there and try to yell him on," Page said. "There are only six of these shirts in existence. Limited edition."

Choi's victories had become rather limited lately, too.

His last win came in early 2008 in Hawaii, and for the last couple of years, he's been working on a significant swing overhaul with Bann to try to make his swing more rounded, less upright. Choi's stock-in-trade shot for years was a power fade, but it was basically the only shot he could execute.

"He's got all the shots, now," Bann grinned.

Through it all, Choi remained as calm inside as he appears externally. It's almost impossible to tell when he's playing well or poorly -- outwardly he's seemingly always the same guy. He was high-fiving fans all day, well before he made a 10-footer for birdie on the 17th to finally take the outright lead.

"You have just described him to a T," his caddie, Andy Prodger, said. "He is very relaxed out there and that is what makes him a very good player."

Choi, who turns 41 this week, doesn't usually get his due in the States, partly because of the language barrier that still exists, but you'd have to look long and hard to find a player who doesn't like and respect the guy in the tour clubhouses. In fact, go ahead, name somebody.

"He's a tremendous person, with a strong faith, a great family at home," Bann said. "And he is just incredibly patient."

To underscore that point, Choi has been beating on the door for a couple of months now, posting three straight top-10 finishes, including a T8 at the Masters.

"He's been playing very well for the last six weeks," said Prodger, who has looped for Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie, among others, and won majors and caddied at Ryder Cups. "But obviously, if you haven't won in a few years, it becomes a bit difficult to win again."

Through it all, Choi never seemed to waver or point fingers at others. He just kept his head down, like he usually does, kept his mouth shut, and kept grinding away. Bann said he's a dream student.

"It's so much easier to work with someone who is not a complainer," Bann said, "someone who accepts responsibility."

In tour circles, that alone means they should probably be erecting statues of the guy. Doesn't complain, blame others, or offer alibis? He ought to run for tour commissioner or high public office, but the pay cut would be too steep.

Choi, who was ranked as high as fifth in the world back in 2008, will move up to No. 15 in the new ranking on Monday and just added $1.71 million to the family coffers, which his thoroughly Americanized kids will be more than happy to help him spend when he gets back to Houston.

None of it would have happened if Choi hadn't one-putted the last two holes in regulation, and holed that downhill slider after missing the 18th green to force the playoff. The putter is the weakest part of Choi's game, and he must have squeezed that oversized, fat grip he uses on his flat stick into tiny rubber pieces.

"I'm sure there was a lot of stuff going through his head," Toms said. "After I made my putt, he's got to regroup and make a great up and down [on the 18th].

"For him, he went from winning the golf tournament to all of a sudden he's got to make a putt to get in a playoff, and then all of a sudden, it's over."

For Choi, based on the way he's played the past two months and climbed back up the world pecking order, it might just be starting.


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