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Making Koreans proud

K.J. Choi extends his Tampa Bay Classic lead, solidifying his star status.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

PALM HARBOR -- There is a 13-hour time difference between South Korea and Florida, which means reporters in K.J. Choi's homeland have been waking quite early to call him.

Choi is as big there as Tiger Woods is here, and they're both in position to win tournaments today.

While Woods took a commanding lead at the American Express Championship in Ireland, Choi did as well at the Tampa Bay Classic on Saturday, where his 3-under-par 68 at the Westin Innisbrook Resort gave him a five-stroke advantage over PGA Tour rookie Pat Perez heading into the last round.

American viewers can see a tape-delayed broadcast of the Tampa Bay Classic tonight on the Golf Channel, but there's a good bet Korean golf fans will tune in live to see their native son try to win his second PGA Tour tournament. They'll have to be up at approximately 5 a.m. Monday in Korea to do so.

"The PGA Tour is on the rise in Korea, and it's all because of K.J.," said Michael Yim, Choi's manager with the International Management Group, who is based in Seoul.

When Choi won the Compaq Classic of New Orleans in May, it was national news. South Korean TV bought the network feed so it could air the final round live. He became the first Korean player to win on the PGA Tour and the fourth Asian man to win.

"A second win would be very important because it is hard to win the first PGA Tour tournament, but winning a second time is even more difficult," Choi said through an interpreter. "If I get my second win (today), it would boost my confidence, and I would feel very comfortable about my future. I feel it will have a big impact in Korea, because it will prove Koreans can make it on the PGA Tour. It will be a confidence booster for not only myself, but the country."

Choi isn't celebrating yet. Three players this year have come back from seven-shot final-round deficits, including John Rollins two weeks ago at the Canadian Open.

But other than double bogey at the par-5 15th on Saturday, Choi has shown few deficiencies.

"He's played very good. It's his tournament to win, obviously," said Glen Day, who shot 70 and was six back, tied for third with Donnie Hammond (69). "He's obviously making some putts. I'm going to go out and play as best I can play. If I can make some putts and get off to a good start, you never know what might happen on this golf course. If you hit it in the rough here, you can make some big numbers."

That's what happened to Australian Rodney Pampling, who began the round two behind Choi and was tied with him through five holes. Double bogey at the sixth, coupled with a Choi birdie, knocked Pampling three back. He made three bogeys coming in, shot 73 and was seven back in fifth place.

"I just really struggled with the iron play most of the day, and you can't afford to struggle a little bit out here because the course will beat you," Pampling said. "It was disappointing, sure, but you have days like today."

Perez, 26, medalist at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, had a chance to put some heat on Choi. He made an 80-foot eagle putt at the 14th and had birdies at Nos. 4, 6, 11 and 17.

But he had two debilitating double bogeys, one at the 10th, where he missed a 5-inch putt, and another at the 16th, where he hit his tee shot into the water.

"Everyone's catchable," Perez said. "It's not like it's impossible. If he has two bad holes and I have two birdies, I could be one back. That's how fast it could go. But he's playing awfully well."

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