For defending champ K.J. Choi, it's a matter of faith and hard work

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K.J. Choi will look to become the first player to successfully defend THE PLAYERS Championship.
May 08, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- As he headed into THE PLAYERS Championship last year, K.J. Choi had a few doubts. The TPC Sawgrass Stadium Course had not been good to him. His best finish was a tie for 16th in 2006, and he had no recent evidence that led him to believe he'd play well, let alone win.

So when he began the rain-delayed final round of THE PLAYERS in the final group, one stroke off the lead of Graeme McDowell and tied with David Toms, Choi did what he always does, win or lose.

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He recalled the hard work that had put him in the position, the hundreds of thousands of practice balls he had hit, everything that had taken him from the island of Wando off the coast of South Korea to where he was at that moment, 1:42 p.m. on a windy Sunday afternoon.

Then he drew on the beliefs that he said guide him and give him strength. Going through his mind were the words of ancient text written in 56 B.C. by a general who took down Jericho just by walking around the city. Choi memorized it long ago.

"It is Joshua 1:9," Choi said recently through his translator and agent, Michael Yim.

According to the King James version of the Bible, the verse says, "Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed: for the Lord thy God is with thee whithersoever thou goest."

It's become a commonplace practice among athletes to make public professions of their faith. Tim Tebow encoded Bible verses into the eye black he wore in college, and starts every post-game interview session with a shout-out to God. Bubba Watson did the same after his Masters victory, and a large group of PGA TOUR players including Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, Jonathan Byrd, Ben Crane and Webb Simpson regularly make public professions of faith.

Choi still struggles with English but is unabashed about expressing his Christian faith. He says it animates everything he does, from how he comports himself on the golf course to what he does with his finances. Given that he has -- in the 14 years since he earned his PGA TOUR card at the 1998 Qualifying School -- earned more that $26 million playing golf, that is a quite a statement.

The No. 1 question Christian athletes get from a skeptical press corps about their post-victory expressions of belief is whether they actually believe that God made them win the Super Bowl or the Zurich Classic or the Masters or THE PLAYERS.

Speaking a couple of weeks ago after the first round of the Valero Texas Open, Choi chuckled at the question.

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"Some people might mistakenly believe that," he said. "But what they don't understand is that, to win a tournament, there's a lot of work that goes into it. When you're winning, you are able to win not just because God made you to win that day.

"It's that, during the final round, you're thinking, you're gaining confidence, you're praying to the Lord and you're gaining confidence through that. But it's through hard work and really strong belief in the Lord that you're able to overcome all the obstacles in that round. It's a whole process."

And it speaks to what motivates and calms Choi on the course. With his focus sharpened, Choi went to the first tee of the final round of 2011 THE PLAYERS with the purposeful stride and single-minded demeanor that first earned him his TOUR nickname of "Tank."

In the previous three rounds Choi had missed the fairway, but this time he cut his tee shot into the short grass, near the right fairway bunker, hit a 9-iron into the green and made a 22-footer for birdie to tie the lead. He went on to shoot a final-round 70 that tied him with Toms, and he won the sudden-death playoff at the 17th hole with a par.

Choi goes home

Check out this exclusive look into K.J. Choi's visit back to his birthplace of Wando, South Korea.

It was an emphatic start, like the start of his career at the 1998 PGA TOUR Qualifying School. That was his first trip to the United States. He spoke no English. He knew next to nothing about the U.S. culture. His agents at IMG asked veteran TOUR caddie Cayce Kerr about caddieing and helping Choi cope with culture shock. Kerr, who had worked for TOUR stars such as Fuzzy Zoeller, Hubert Green, Payne Stewart, John Mahaffey and Dave Stockton, had never heard of Choi.

"I told them I'd take the job on one condition," said Kerr, who will be on Lee Westwood's bag at this week's PLAYERS Championship, filling in for the injured Billy Foster. "I said if he comes in a week early to learn about the golf courses, I'll do it."

The Q School at the Doral Resort was played on the TPC Blue Monster and the quirkier, but almost as difficult, Doral Silver Course. Kerr knew the courses well, and when Choi arrived to get in the requisite work, he quickly won over the hard-boiled caddie.

"The guy couldn't have been any more of a dedicated golfer," Kerr recalled on Tuesday. "He did everything he had to do. By the time we got to the final round, he was right there with a chance to get his card."

Kerr recalls a crucial call during the middle of the round when Choi was considering a low shot through a small window in the woods onto an island green -- a 100-to-1 shot in the caddie's estimation.

"Like all great players do, he was thinking he could do it," Kerr said. "But the risk was far greater than the reward. He misses, we make a big number and that's it. I talked him into chipping it out and playing for four, five at worst."

Choi chipped out, hit the green and missed the putt for par. But his bogey was good enough to earn his TOUR card on the number. Kerr said that when it was all over, Choi's wife, Kim, turned to him and said, "I love you, Cayce."

"Sure, it's business," Kerr said. "It's golf. But that was a real human moment. You could see it. That's the thing about K.J., and his family, the way he goes about things."

Choi, like many PGA TOUR players, gives a substantial amount to charity . He gives 10 percent of his income to his church in Houston. He makes substantial donations from his personal earnings to his Foundation, which annually funds a broad range of programs in Korea, from children's scholarships to relief efforts to disaster aid and food programs for starving North Koreans. After he won the 2008 Sony Open in Hawaii, he gave $320,000 to families of 40 victims of a warehouse fire near Seoul.

"It's pretty simple when you think about it," Choi said. "When you're born into this world, you're born with nothing. And when you die, you can't take the money with you. I think faith has a lot to do with it, and God really sends me the message.

"Not to say that I throw my money away. I'm very selective in how my money goes to charities through donations. But when I know in my heart that there are people who really need that money, that's when my heart says that I have to do this."

Choi was fairly upbeat about his chances to defend his title here this week. It has never been done, and, much like last year, there is little to suggest that he is on course to do it. One thing that is certain, though, is, win or lose, Choi will be count it a blessing.

"I think I'm able to play golf as a profession because through golf I'm able to make the income that I make and through that I'm able to help other people," Choi said. "Through that, it's a blessing."

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.