Watching Korean, K.J. Choi make his way around the TPC Sawgrass to win The Players Championship last week, I was struck once again by what a stoic the man is. His Tour nickname is “Tank” presumably because he was a weightlifter as a teenager. And he still has the bearing and mannerisms of a weightlifter. Any body movement has a solid flow to it, the kind you see in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s walk. Throw in the austere facial expressions from beneath his visor and you have the classically inscrutable Korean.
Except what he looks like is not who he is.
So for example, it came out during the course of the weekend broadcast that he was a Christian. That was surprising, but the depth of his faith that came out in his victory interview was even more so:
I’m just very thankful to the Lord. It’s Him that allowed me to win this tournament. The fan support was tremendous out there. I think the key thing for me today was to because it was such a long day, to maintain my body and rhythm, to get enough rest in between, and stay patient and not give up.
I prayed really hard all through the day, and I think that’s why God was able to give me this great gift.
And, in an acknowledgement you don’t see on the Tour every day, he spoke with great generosity and affection for his fellow competitors:
I also want to thank my playing partners, David Toms and Graeme McDowell. Both of them, they really helped me play the way I did, like a good friend would, like a good younger brother would. They were just fantastic playing partners, and I really want to, they kept me in rhythm, they kept me focused and I really want to thank them for their attitude.
He also gave us some insight into just how much work it takes to play at his level, but almost as important, the mindset it takes to hit good shots under pressure:
I’ve worked with my swing coach, Steve Bann, for over six years now, and we’ve gone through a lot of work together. We’ve done a lot of work together, and to get to this point, you know, I’ve put in a lot of time.
The swing that I have right now doesn’t really break down under pressure situations. I was able to hit it precise and aggressive today, and I was able to keep my rhythm together. And I think that’s what contributed to the performance.
And it’s funny how life prepares you for what’s coming down the road at you. I forgot which tournament it was—could have been The Memorial—but he was paired with Tiger all four rounds. Because of the fervor of Tiger’s gallery, playing with him is like playing in a circus. And so when he found himself in the heat of the battle on Sunday, he was prepared. (And he also earned Tiger’s friendship and respect. One of the announcers said that he saw Tiger walk up to K.J. on the practice putting green last week and give him an affectionate embrace.):
When I started my day today, one thing that I said to myself that I told myself that I needed to do was not to get swept away by the cheers of the crowd, of the gallery, not to get swept away by the pressure, by how my other players were doing.
When David Toms made that putt on the 18th for birdie, it was as loud as something you’d hear at the Masters, someone holing an important putt at the Masters.
So that’s what I said to myself, and I felt very comfortable with the whole situation, with the whole environment throughout the day. There were going to be a lot of gallery that’s going to be cheering for David, but I expected it, so it wasn’t a big issue for me.
And, as he sat in the Champion’s press conference, I also found interesting his first exposure to the TPC Sawgrass, his humble beginnings as a golfer and his minimal expectations for himself in this year’s tournament:
When I first joined the TOUR, moved over here in 1999, this course my level, my level of talent golf wise wasn’t good enough to shoot under par on this course. You had the wind factor; the course is long.
Growing up in Korea, when you practice in Korea, the only practice driving range you have is like indoor driving ranges where there’s no wind. So it was really impossible to think about practicing in a facility on a golf course where you’re facing the wind. That’s why it was very hard for me. This course is very difficult for me, even though I’ve played and practiced here a lot of times.
I didn’t think for me to shoot under par every day on this course this week, it’s like a miracle, to be honest with you. You know, to have won this tournament now, I couldn’t even think about that because my goal was to make the cut, and I just want to thank the Lord for giving me this win.
When the media asked him about how he felt to be able to win at almost 41 against all the up and coming young guns, he was able to impart a little wisdom that revealed his personal discipline:
Yeah, I mean, there’s a lot of young players that are coming up. But the message that I want to get across to all the young players is that you have to really be able to maintain your lifestyle. You have to be very regimented in order to have a long career out here on the Tour.
I think I was able to do that, I was able to focus, I was able to maintain physically and mentally my body very well. And I felt like I still had the confidence that I could play well out there. I train hard, I practice hard, and I think all the young players need to do that.
And I think you need to live your life to the fullest. And when I say that, I don’t mean partying all the time. Live a systematic, regimented life, always be humble. That’s my motto.
And in his humility, he had extensive, in-depth praise for his caddie, a rarity on Tour:
Yeah, Andy is like my wife. I mean, he’s like my older brother, big brother. You know, when I’m not playing well, he’s got a lot of humor. He cracks a joke and makes me feel better. He’s someone that gives me something to dream about. He gives me hope.
Whenever I’m down, he’ll motivate me by saying, “Don’t worry about it. Don’t be concerned about anything. Just think positive.” So he’s like a positive factor in my life.
For example, today on the 16th hole, when I laid up [before he knew that Toms, the leader, was going to hit it in the water], I personally thought that the tournament wasn’t mine, that I was going to lose the tournament. But Andy kept saying, “hey, don’t be negative, just think positive. You never know what’s going to happen, just lay up. Hit to your comfortable distance,” and that’s what I did. He really made me feel comfortable out there.
And finally there were two things I learned about Choi that nicely sum up the man.
The first is that after his 2005 victory in Greensboro, North Carolina, he donated $90,000 to the Korean Presbyterian Church that he has attended each year he played the tournament.
And the second is that his nickname, “Tank,” does indeed come from his teenage powerlifting days when he was able to squat 350 pounds…but he only weighed 95.
As the old saw goes, looks can be deceiving. It was nice to have someone of Choi’s basic decency and character affirm that once again.