Choi becomes first South Korean winner on PGA Tour

Sunday, May 5th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

NEW ORLEANS (AP) _ It was 4 a.m. in South Korea when K.J. Choi began the final round of the Compaq Classic. The hour didn't stop his fans from watching on television.

``People will miss work to watch,'' said Hie-Man Hwang, a South Korean journalist who flew in for Sunday's round. ``He can make history, it's a very big thing in Korea.''

Choi did not disappoint the fans back home, becoming the first South Korean winner in PGA Tour history, closing with a 5-under 67 for a four-stroke victory in the Compaq Classic.

``I believe it will influence a generation of Korean golfers to come to the U.S. and try out for the PGA,'' Choi said through an interpreter. ``In that sense, the win is very special.''

Choi earned the $810,000 winner's check with a 17-under 271 total, holding off a number of challengers in ideal scoring condition at on the English Turn course.

Geoff Ogilvy and Dudley Hart came the closest, finishing with 68s to tie for second at 14-under 275. John Cook (66), Chris DiMarco (68), Mike Sposa (68) and Dan Forsman (70) were 13 under.

``The greens kept getting harder and faster and browner and slippery, as I like to say,'' Hart said. ``It was very slick and, actually, hard to read sometimes.''

Choi, who took the lead in the second round, was tied but never trailed after that. He took it slow and steady in the 91-degree heat as the field surged toward him.

``This win is very special to me because when I first came to the U.S. I had a 10-year plan laid out,'' Choi said. ``It's earlier than I though it would happen, but it's part of the plan.''

He had two birdies on the front nine for a one-stroke lead at the turn, and sank a 20-foot birdie putt on No. 11 to go to 15 under _ two shots ahead of three players.

Choi increased his lead with a birdie on No. 13. His second shot on the 16th rolled to the lip of the cup and sat there, a breath away from an eagle and a five-shot lead.

Choi described that as the turning point in the round. He said he knew it was a good shot, but did not think it was an eagle.

``If it had gone in the crowd would have gone wild,'' the interpreter said. ``He didn't think the crowd went wild enough.''

Choi chipped in for his final birdie on No. 17 _ a 35-footer from out of the rough. By the time he bogeyed 18 he had nothing to worry about.

The tournament turned into a race early as the wind fell off for the first time in the week.

By early afternoon nine players were within three strokes of the leader. An hour later, Choi's birdie at No. 17 put him at 14 under, but 12 players were within four strokes and two, Sposa and Bryce Molder, were within a shot.

Sposa moved up with five birdies on the front nine to put him at 13 under. He had a chance to tie for the lead on 12, but missed a short putt for birdie.

Defending champion David Toms, who started the day at 209, five shots behind Choi, had four birdies on the first seven holes _ the first time he had back-to-back birdies in the tournament.

An 18-foot birdie putt on nine put him at 12 under, a shot off Choi's pace. But a bogey on 13 and a double bogey on 16 ended his chance of repeating. He finished at 278 along with Phil Mickelson, Tim Clark and Molder.

The 23-year-old Molder, playing on a sponsor's exemption, was in contention for the lead early in the day. After bogeying the first hole, he had three birdies on the front nine to go to 13 under.

Molder then looked as if he was done in by the 10th hole where four putts, the last three from within 4 feet, left him with a triple bogey and dropped him off the leaderboard at under 10.

He rallied with birdies on 11, 13 and 15 only to bogey the final three holes for a 73. He tied for ninth at 10 under to earn a spot next week in the Byron Nelson Classic in Irving, Texas.

``That was one of my goals, to get in the top 10 and get an exemption for next week,'' Molder said.

He also earned $112,500, putting him closer to the $279,877 he needs to get unlimited sponsorships for the rest of the season.

``There were so many things I learned today,'' Molder said. ``Like where not to put the ball on Sundays.''