Choi masters Congressional for 3-shot win

The Baltimore Sun

BETHESDA -- Tiger Woods has been linked with and compared to Jack Nicklaus throughout his career for their accomplishments as golfing legends. Yesterday, Woods found himself sharing something else in common with Nicklaus: K.J. Choi winning their respective tournaments in the same year.

Five weeks after Choi left Muirfield Village Golf Club outside Columbus, Ohio, with a trophy and a seven-figure check from the Memorial Tournament, the South Korean did the same in departing Congressional Country Club after the inaugural AT&T; National last night.

With a final round of 2-under-par 68 that included a victory-clinching birdie on the par-4 17th hole and a four-round total of 9-under 271, Choi beat a late-fading Steve Stricker by three strokes and an early-collapsing Stuart Appleby of Australia, as well former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk and Pat Perez, by six.

"I'm shocked at myself being able to win Jack's and Tiger's tournament," Choi, 37, said through an interpreter. "I can't really express in words what this really means to me. This tournament is really too big for me to really absorb right now. It's a very big win for me, definitely the biggest win of my career."

Asked to compare his sixth win since joining the PGA Tour in 2000 with his fifth, Choi said: "Both wins are very special to me. I can't really say which one really makes me feel better. They're both valuable. One thing I can say is that this week's trophy is a lot heavier. I just feel very honored to win their events."

Woods, the tournament host, never really was a factor. He came into the day trailing Appleby by seven shots and continued to putt inconsistently until birdies on the final two holes brought him back to even-par 70 and 2-under 278 for the tournament, leaving him tied for sixth.

"The weekend, I hit the ball pretty good actually," Woods said. "Didn't putt well. [Saturday] I hit good putts and they didn't go in and today I hit bad putts. I did not putt well today. Again, left a lot of putts short. I had a lot of trouble getting the ball to the hole this week, and I needed to putt well and they were just not going to go in."

Despite his inability to win his first tournament since becoming a father, Woods had to be ecstatic about the event. A crowd of more than 37,000 yesterday brought the six-day attendance to nearly 140,000, making it one of the top tour stops in attendance this year.

"When you're out there playing, I'm trying to get a W and I didn't get a W, so that's frustrating in that sense," Woods said. "But this tournament in general has been a bigger success than I think any one of us could have imagined. I think everyone who has been a part of it worked hard to make the tournament special. I think it's come out that way."

It was certainly that way for Choi, who played the steadiest of any of those in contention and saved his best shot for nearly last when he holed out from the green-side bunker for a birdie on No. 17. Choi celebrated by pumping the fist, knowing his two-stroke lead had suddenly become three.

Did Choi learn the fist pump from watching Woods, just as he learned the game by reading an instructional book written by Nicklaus that was given to him by a high school gym teacher back in South Korea?

"It came out naturally, given the circumstances and the atmosphere," Choi said. "I wasn't trying to put it in the hole. All I was trying to do was make par. It surprised me."

So did the lack of competition at the end. While Stricker faded from a share of the lead with back-to-back bogeys on the par-4 14th and par-4 15th holes, Appleby imploded early. After coming into the final round with a two-stroke lead over Choi at 9-under, Appleby double-bogeyed the par-3 second hole and then bogeyed four straight holes.

Appleby, who shot 76, left the course without offering any explanation.

"Talk to the winner," Appleby said as he stormed off.

Stricker was a bit more diplomatic in defeat. A little more than two months ago, the journeyman matched Woods shot-for-shot the last three rounds at the Wachovia Championship and wound up losing by two strokes. Stricker, 40, whose first tour win was in the Kemper Open at nearby Avenel in 1996, hasn't won since 2001.

"It's not a great feeling, but you can still take a lot of positives away from it," Stricker said. "It's a tough enough game, let alone beating yourself up for finishing second. There have been a couple of guys that have just played better."

In Choi's case, he lived up to the nickname - "Tank" - bestowed on him as a child when he was a promising weightlifter. While some here were thrown off by the bumpy greens and others succumbed to the weekend heat, Choi plowed ahead.

"I like it," Choi said of his nickname, which one Korean fan wrote on a sign yesterday. "I think the meaning that's in it, it's similar to what I think, how I've lived my life. It's never looking back, just move forward like a tank. Just progress. When I first came to the U.S., everything was new. There were a lot of hurdles for me to overcome."

Choi had one more challenge leaving Congressional.

Schlepping home a trophy heavier than the last one.

don.markus@baltsun.com

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