When nine Asian golf stars, including Chinese amateur Lin Yuxin and Chinese Taipei’s CT Pan, tee off at this week’s Masters, they could well find inspiration from the success story of South Korean trailblazer KJ Choi, who has come closest to donning the coveted green jacket.
Choi, who turned 50 earlier this year, has enjoyed a love affair with Augusta National since making his debut in 2003, and has been heartbroken following some close shaves, which include a career-best third-place finish in 2004 and two other top-10s in 2010 and 2011. His impressive Masters record and well-documented rise to fame on the PGA Tour will be a fresh reminder to the Asian brigade that anything is possible in the fabled tournament.
For over two decades, Choi, who is nicknamed “The Tank” due to his solid frame and single-mindedness on the course, has blazed a trail for Asian golf with an incredible journey that began in Wando Island, South Korea, where he grew up in a farming family.
Thanks mainly to his unflinching dedication, he remains the most successful Asian golfer on the PGA Tour with eight victories, 68 top-10s and over $32 million in prize money.
“When I first came to play in the US, I questioned if a Korean player could win on the PGA Tour. To be honest, most of my thoughts were negative thoughts, but I pushed and worked hard to reach my goal. I look back at my career now, and there are really some records to commemorate and I’m very honored and proud of my achievements on the tour,” said Choi.
The Asian contingent at Augusta is comprised of four Koreans－Im Sung-jae, An Byeong-hun, Kim Si-woo and Kang Sung－Chinese Taipei’s Pan, Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond, Japanese duo Hideki Matsuyama and Shugo Imahira and China’s 2019 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship winner, Lin.
Choi’s advice to any aspiring golfers is simple: Work harder than the rest.
“There are a few things that people talk about when they think of KJ Choi, such as KJ changing grips and having success, always wearing visor caps, and so on,” he said. “Of all these words, the phrase I like best is, ‘KJ Choi, he worked really hard.’ I like this saying because people acknowledge that I have worked hard my entire life. I think that is my legacy.
“If other players practiced for two hours, I did three hours. I always tried to practice more than the others and I was obsessed to overcome what people thought of me. And those hours of hard work and with God’s help, I could play on the PGA Tour for 21 years. As I look back at my career now, there are really some records to commemorate and I’m proud to be one of the Korean players to play on the tour.”
Im, the 2019 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, is among the growing legion of Korean stars who were inspired by Choi.
“Since I was young, I watched KJ winning on the tour and always thought that one day I want to experience what KJ has done. Playing on the PGA Tour was my goal since then,” said Im.
“If we practice together, he comments about course management and gives advice. He also gives advice on general things.”
An, who moved to the US when he was 15 to pursue his golf dreams, added that Choi was always ready to play practice rounds with the new generation of players and impart his knowledge along the way. “He never refused,” said An, who will be making his fourth Masters appearance.
“He always gives us advice… he’s got all the experience in the last 20 years and that’s something you should never ignore from a guy like him. I think it would have been harder for us to come out to the PGA Tour if it wasn’t for him,” An said. “He opened a lot of doors for Asian golf, not just Korean golf. He had a very strong mentality and worked very hard and that definitely helped us get onto the PGA Tour and opened our eyes a little bit more. All the wins he had gave us hope that we can do it too.”
The writer is senior director of international marketing& communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur