I’m going to let you in on a little secret: K.J. Choi has a fantastic sense of humor and tells great stories…in English! Choi is a fan favorite (remember Choi’s Bois?) and often takes the extra effort to acknowledge the crowd even after a bad hole or shot. He didn’t have very many on Friday, though, shooting a five-under 65, a tie for his career best at East Lake, to move to second place at halfway mark of the Tour Championship.
“Bogey? I say, ‘Thank you!’ Better than double-bogey!” Choi, laughing, said earlier this week.
Choi hit it beautifully off the tee. If he missed a fairway, he was just in the first cut. His iron play — which his swing instructor Australian Steve Bann says is his strongest suit — was even better. The first green Choi missed was No. 13.
“Today is a very comfortable tee shot, and the putting is very well,” said Choi after his round without an interpreter. “Because yesterday the five‑footers and ten‑footers, many missed putts and the wrong reads. Today in the morning on the putting green 45 minutes early, come to golf course. I reading and speed today is fantastic, some great shots with the irons and then tap‑in birdies.”
Choi’s ballstriking was just as great in the first round, but he didn’t make any putts. Both days he hit 15 of 18 greens in regulation.
“Mindset is clear,” said Choi when asked the difference between Thursday and Friday. “Yesterday I’m hitting very well, and then so many missed putts and the wrong reads, and today is more focus on the greens and the reads more better and the speed is more comfortable. And then the wind blowing in my hometown in Dallas is more windy than here, so I’m more control irons is more better this week.”
Bann, who is based in Melbourne, Australia, but spends about 24 weeks in the U.S., has been working with Choi since 2006 and they’ve gradually made changes to his swing.
“It’s taken me at least six years to come to this swing,” said Choi through an interpreter during his presser. “I’ve gone through a lot of trial and errors throughout the process. During pressure situations I used to go back to my old habits, but Steve Bann, he kept on ‑‑ he convinced me that this was the way to go because with a full release and with a natural draw, higher trajectory, it’s going to help my game fit the longer courses, the harder greens, where most of the tournaments are held at.”
Prior to working with Bann, Choi’s shot-making was limited to his little right-to-left cut. Now, he’s able to shape the ball.
“He’s going to hit a hard draw here,” Bann told me near the 18th tee. “On a hole like this with a front left pin, the closest he probably could have gotten (the ball) was 30 feet.”
And indeed, Choi hit a hard draw, but he came up a little short of the pin.
Choi used to think the course didn’t fit his game, but in the last two years, he’s notched two top tens. He credited his good finishes to the changes he’s made with Bann.
“Before I didn’t think this course fit my game or my swing, but ever since I’ve gone through the swing changes, working with Steve, I’m hitting the ball more solidly,” said Choi. “I’m having good extension through the ball, releasing it a lot better. That’s helping my game. And I think because of the swing changes, my game actually fits this course now compared to before.”
Choi also plays mind games with himself when he’s practicing his short game to keep his focus, which he also applies during tournament play. It seemed like he was trying to crack a joke in response to my question, but it didn’t translate well.
“Practice sessions can be really boring and stressful, so I try to enjoy it,” he said. “I try to have fun when I’m out there practicing. You know, when you’re making putts, either you’re going to have 50 percent missing it or making it, so whether ‑‑ if I have a double bogey out there, it’s at least better than a triple bogey. If I have a bogey, it’s better than a double bogey. So I’m thankful for whatever I do that it didn’t do any worse than what it could have been.”
Walking up to the 18th green, Bann said, “K.J. has a fabulous sense of humor. Most people don’t realize it until they meet him because he’s so serious on the golf course.”
While K.J. does speak English during TV and radio interviews, he usually has an interpreter for his press conferences, but he understands the question most of the time. His sense of humor sometimes comes through during the pressers, but take it from me: He’s not only one of the most stand-up guys on Tour, he also tells great stories…in English — like about why he moved from Houston to Dallas, but his wife and oldest son wanted to move to NYC and K.J. looked into it until he reminded them what he did for a living, or how he’s neighbors with the Jonas Brothers yet he’s never actually seen them.
You had to be there, I guess.
(AP Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt)