Unique in many ways
Humble background, love of the sea, near-tragic accident -- Ho Sung Choi is more than just his swing
February 05, 2019
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
Humble background, love of the sea, near-tragic accident -- Ho Sung Choi is more than just his swing
PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Get ready, golf world. Ho Sung Choi is about to take America by storm.
The humble Korean with the unique background and swing will make his U.S. debut at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. You may be familiar with what you’ve seen of Choi, but you may not know the full story. Take these 13 steps to gain some proper perspective and a better appreciation for what will unfold this week.
Choi was born in his family home on Sept. 23, 1973, in Pohang, a port city in South Korea approximately 230 miles southeast of Seoul. Medical funds were limited, as his family had little money – his father was a fisherman and operated a boat, while his mother was a sea diver. Their home was so close to the East Sea that the young Choi often had to scoop out buckets of water and sand from the front yard after one of the frequent storms blew through his neighborhood.
Given the location of his family home and his parents’ occupation, it’s no surprise that Choi grew up as an aquaphile. A story in Golf magazine notes that Choi was a “fearless kid who relished the challenge of swimming in typhoons when the water was at its roughest and most dangerous” and added the Choi sometimes “found himself trapped in whirlpools from which he had to furiously kick and paddle to escape.”
Choi was 19 years old and about to graduate from a specialized school that prepares students for jobs in the fishing industry. While working at a nearby factory trimming tuna, he suffered an accident with a chainsaw.
“It resulted in losing a part of my right thumb,” Choi says.
The thumb was reattached through a skin graft that included a piece of skin from his stomach. Although it doesn’t hamper his golf game, it still causes him pain and discomfort when the weather gets cold.
Due to the injury, Choi became exempt from the mandatory enlistment in the army. During this time, he drifted through a series of jobs at steel and mine companies, as well as other labor-intensive jobs such as delivering groceries.
As Choi explains, “I was so lost for years and didn’t know what to do.”
At age 25, Choi found a job working part-time at Anyang Country Club, which had recently undergone a renovation by architect Robert Trent Jones Jr. to toughen up a layout that was nearly three decades old. Choi had little interest in playing golf on a regular basis … until a management change in 1997. “The general manager of the course encouraged every employee to ‘experience’ golf,” Choi recalls.
So Choi became more serious about the sport, teaching himself golf in a very unique way.
“I had no coaches back then as it’s expensive,” he says, “but there were many golf magazines that I learned from. I would try to copy the golf swings of Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Annika Sorenstam. All of their swings were in those magazines. Of course, they were all snapshots of the swing, not a video, but I was able to apply by looking at them.”
Tired of drifting from one job to another, and finding more and more enjoyment in playing golf – which, much like fishing, is mostly a solitary experience – Choi took the next step and decided to see if he could make a living as a pro golfer. He started out as a semi-pro, and then turned into a full-time commitment in 2001, seeking playing opportunities in both Korea and Japan. He was 29 years old. “I lived year after year in a struggle,” he told Golf magazine. “But I had the desperate and urgent mindset that golf was all I had. I think that is what made me.”
At Welli Hilli Country Club, about 90 minutes outside Seoul, Choi became a winner for the first time in his emerging golf career, as he claimed the 2008 Hana Tour Championship on the Korean Tour. Three years later, he won his second event in Korea, the 2011 Lake Hills Open.
Then in 2013, playing this time on the Japan Tour, he won the Indonesia PGA Championship in late March by two shots; the field included a few known veterans such as Daniel Chopra and Jeev Milkha Singh.
But that wasn’t the most important development for Choi in 2013.
Who knew back in 2013 when Choi found himself facing a tough lie that he would develop a golf swing and follow-through so unusual that he would become an Internet sensation a few years later.
Let him explain: “It was all about surviving as a tour professional. As you know, the new generation of golfers is very strong and fit and these guys can hit the ball very far. As I am getting older, I need to do something or I was going to become an ordinary golfer. I recall I was trying the current swing when I was in deep rough back in 2013 or so, but it eventually became my ‘standard’ golf swing about a year ago.”
The swing, Choi says, has added about 13 yards to his drive, with his standard carry now 282 yards.
“That’s a huge advantage when it comes to my second shot, which is like a one-club difference,” he adds.
Choi was still flying under the radar, fame-wise at least, for a few years even after committing to his new swing. He was struggling to contend on a consistent basis; ranked as high as 326th in the world after that win in Indonesia, he had fallen to 795th late in 2015.
But then a photographer from the Japanese version of Golf Digest, who had been following Choi and snapping photos of him at various tournaments, finally found the perfect nickname.
“Each time he edits his photos of me,” Choi says, “he had to think of a caption. Then he thought my swing reminds him of how a fisherman would throw his hook to get his catch and decided to call it that.”
Still, it wasn’t until the summer of 2018, when he put together a stretch of three top-10 finishes during a five-start stretch – that video highlights started to gain traction. His unique swing was now an effective one – and as we all know, people generally love anything that’s different.
Choi has learned to appreciate the attention he has received, while still putting it in the proper perspective.
“I find it hilarious every time I watch the clips,” he says of his swing. “But I really do not know what happens while I play, as I am way too focused on my game. It really doesn’t matter how the swing looks as long as I am getting the right results. As we all look different, we cannot have the same-looking golf swing.”
The right results kept coming – in November, he won the Casio World Open on the Japan Tour, and then in his first start in 2019, he finished T-12 at the Singapore Open. That moved him – at age 45 -- to 194th in the world, the highest ranking in his career.
According to the San Francisco Chronicle, Steve John – tournament director of the AT&T Pebble Beach -- received an email on Jan. 7 from a representative of Choi’s agent, asking if the tournament might be interested in offering Choi a sponsor exemption.
John was definitely interested, gained approval from the tournament committee, and made one of the tournament’s four unrestricted exemptions available to Choi. The Korean accepted – and this week will be his first time in the United States.
“His swing is pretty awesome – it’s going to be a fun story,” John told the Chronicle. “You think about what Bing Crosby started in 1937, and it was about getting together with Hollywood friends and having a good time. This guy has a good time playing golf. It’s a good fit for our tournament.”
So what does Choi think of all the attention he’s receiving from a country he’s never visited until this week?
“It’s fun to see so many American fans taking a liking for my golf swing,” he says. “It’s quite an honor that it’s not just the Japanese and Korean golf fans who like my swing. It’s also because of the fans that is the reason why I’m playing this sport. I want to meet their expectations and I will prepare the best that I can to play well in Pebble Beach.”
Soon after the news became official that Choi would play the AT&T Pebble Beach, one of the celebrity amateurs took to Twitter. Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback who plays with pro golfer/Packers fan Jerry Kelly, asked that Choi and his amateur partner be part of their playing group for the first three rounds. “It was interesting to see him tweeting about his interested to play with me,” says Choi (no word on just how much Choi knows about Rodgers’ success at Lambeau Field).
Although he’s never played golf in America, and he’s making his first start in the country at one of the sport’s iconic venues, Choi goes in with high expectations. “I have a feeling that I’m going to play well over there,” he says. “There are no specific objectives but I’ve got a gut feeling that I’ve got this. As it’s my first time there, I’m not aware of the surroundings near the golf course. I’ll certainly explore the area when I’m there and maybe I’ll have my first American hamburger too.”
Hey, Ho Sung, we’ve already done the research – there’s an In-N-Out Burger less than eight miles away in Seaside.
While his wife, Whang Jina, manages all of her husband’s business affairs, she’s also the mother of Choi’s two teenaged sons, Seo Hyun and Seo Ho. As of now, the sons aren’t interested in following their father’s footsteps as a golfer. They’d rather be musicians. “Hopefully they can be as entertaining as me,” smiles Choi.
Yes, the attention is a bit dizzying right now. He’s playing the best golf of his career, his background makes him somebody to root for, and his unique swing gives him a signature move that any fame-seeker would love. “The response I’ve received has been overwhelming and unbelievable,” Choi says.
And yet, at the end of the day, he’s just grateful to have an opportunity that he wasn’t sure he’d ever get. He’s not taking it for granted.
“I’m really grateful and honored I’ve got so many fans watching me from all over the world, especially in the United States now,” he says. “I’m just an ordinary guy who happens to play golf for a living.”