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A record start for Choi

The only Korean winner on the PGA Tour shoots 63 to beat the heat and lead by two strokes at Innisbrook.

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
K.J. Choi hits his second shot at the par-5 fifth at Westin Innisbrook's Copperhead course on his way to one of nine birdies in the first round.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002

PALM HARBOR -- K.J. Choi could meander around the Westin Innisbrook Resort, and throughout north Pinellas County for that matter, and barely get a second look.

Maybe the courtesy car would give him away as a PGA Tour player, or maybe the golf attire.

His 8-under-par 63, a record on the Copperhead course, had fans scratching their heads Thursday during the opening round of the Tampa Bay Classic. Who is this golfer?

They weren't asking that question in Korea, where Choi is one of the country's biggest stars and where news of him leading a PGA Tour event is important stuff.

Choi, a 5-foot-8, 185-pound former powerlifter, came to the United States two years ago from the small island of Wando, South Korea, where there are no courses. He still struggles with American food and culture, but had no trouble navigating the difficult Copperhead course.

On a day when the scoring average was 72.554, more than a stroke over par, Choi had nine birdies and one bogey.

"I wasn't expecting to shoot this low of a score on this course," Choi said through an interpreter. "This course has very tight and narrow fairways, but I was driving very well and hitting iron shots well. Putting was the only thing I had doubts about, but I was making everything."

When Choi finished his round early in the afternoon, nobody was within five strokes of his lead, although that changed as the day progressed.

Rodney Pampling, a rookie from Australia, shot 65 to take second place, two strokes back. Billy Andrade was next with 66.

Two-time British Open winner John Daly shot 75, and U.S. Ryder Cup team members Hal Sutton and Stewart Cink shot 72 and 73, respectively.

The round was suspended at 6:54 p.m. because of lightning with 17 players on the course. They will complete the second round this morning, with second-round tee times scheduled to remain the same.

Bart Bryant was 5 under and tied with Andrade with one hole to play. Pat Perez shot 67 and was fifth. Lee Janzen and Peter Jacobsen were in a group at 68.

"There are so many great players out here, there's always going to be someone who shoots low," said Brad Bryant, a part-time tour player who shot 68. "If I can shoot 68, these guys out here can do a lot better than that. But the course isn't easy. There are so many holes where par is a good score, where you walk away happy to make par. It's not like a lot of courses where you feel you can birdie every hole."

Choi made it seem that way. He started on the back nine and birdied Nos. 11-14, added another at 16 and four more on the front nine. His bogey came at the par-4 third, the toughest on the course, and he needed just 24 putts.

When Pampling stepped onto the first tee, he was eight behind.

"It really wasn't that big a deal," said Pampling, 32, who earned his tour privileges this year by finishing fourth on the money list in 2001. "I think 3 under was the second best. You just had to realize that K.J. had a great day out there. And fortunately for myself, a lot went my way as well. So I'm not that far behind."

Andrade, 38, won the 1991 JCPenney Classic at Innisbrook with the LPGA Tour's Kris Tschetter. He finished second Sunday at the Pennsylvania Classic and is 40th on the money list with $1.165-million.

"My mind-set is to come here and build on what I've done the last few weeks on a golf course where I've won," Andrade said. "I've had some good rounds on this track, and I've been looking forward to coming here and playing well."

Choi, 32, is no stranger to good golf, having become the first Korean to win on the PGA Tour at the Compaq Classic of New Orleans in May.

That victory catapulted him up the money list, where he held a strong position among the top 30. But after the NEC Invitational last month he returned to Korea for three weeks and fell to 31st, costing him a spot in this week's American Express Championship in Ireland. Choi is the top-ranked player on the money list at Innisbrook.

"After I won in New Orleans, I had a lot of pressure taken off of me, and I probably relaxed too much," Choi said. "I was treated like a champion, and it took almost two months to get used to it. I am not out of the slump."

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