Big win for Choi, tough loss for Toms at Players
With a mixture of sadness and celebration, K.J. Choi rolled in a 2-foot par putt on the infamous island green on the 17th hole at the TPC Sawgrass to claim the biggest win of his career.
The sadness came from watching David Toms, who only moments earlier had hit two of his best shots of the week to make birdie on the 18th hole and force a playoff, miss a 3 1/2-foot par putt to effectively lose on the first extra hole.
There was so much to celebrate, however.
The Players Championship is the biggest event on the strongest tour in golf, and Choi had to wipe a few tears away when he won Sunday evening. Winning comes with a check for $1.71 million from the largest purse in tournament golf. Choi also earned a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and three-year exemptions to the Masters and U.S. Open.
But perhaps the most meaningful was the trophy - not the look of it or even the value of the crystal, but the name.
Choi is the Players' champion.
Despite coming to America more than a decade ago, facing a language barrier and uncertain whether his game would be good enough to compete against the best, Choi has become a favorite among his peers.
He was paired with Jack Nicklaus early in his PGA Tour career, and the Golden Bear took to him even before Choi won at the Memorial in 2007 and talked about learning golf by reading a book about Nicklaus.
What helped make Tiger Woods' return to competition last year at the Masters a little easier was having K.J. Choi in his group, and they wound up being paired all four days.
''K.J. is just a great guy,'' Woods said last year. ''And on top of that, he's learned a lot of English. Our conversations are getting a little bit longer now.''
Fans reached out to touch Choi on his way to the tee, and he smiled and slapped their hands.
Choi uses a translator - Michael Yim, his agent at IMG - when he wins tournaments, but he has no trouble speaking with anyone inside the ropes and often speaks English in broadcast interviews. A few years ago, when a reporter forgot the Korean word for ''thank you'' after an interview, Choi turned to his agent and said, ''I teach this guy one word seven years ago and he can't remember. And he expects me to learn his whole language?''
Then he broke into a laugh so infectious that everyone around joined in.
Now they can embrace him for his play.
Choi did everything The Players Championship demands out of its winner. He never got flustered, even as he was coming down the stretch of perhaps the most dynamic finish in golf. He played 27 holes on Sunday, having to start on the 11th hole in the morning to finish the rain-delayed third round, and thus did something no other winner at Sawgrass had done before.
He played the island-green 17th hole three times in one day - and found land all three times.
The biggest play came in regulation of the final round. Tied for the lead, he hit 9-iron into 10 feet and holed the putt for birdie, punching the air with more emotion than he typically shows.
Then it was Toms' turn.
Toms had been atop the leaderboard for the better part of five hours Sunday, and right when he fell behind, it looked as though nothing would go his way. He hit a beautiful tee shot on the 18th hole - the hardest at Sawgrass, yielding only three birdies in the final round until that point - only for the ball to settle into a divot.
From 178 yards, Toms produced his best swing of the day, a 6-iron that finished pin-high about 18 feet away. He made the birdie putt for a 2-under 70, and Choi completed a tough up-and-down from 80 feet by making a par putt from just inside 5 feet to set up the playoff. Choi also shot a 70, and they finished on 15-under 273.
Then came the playoff.
''My mind was thinking, 'Let's not hit in the water, let's try to get it on the green.' And honestly, that's all I was thinking,'' Choi said.
He did, only it was 40 feet away. Toms hit his shot to 18 feet, and when Choi missed with a good lag, Toms thought he had won the tournament until the ball slid by on the left side. Because of the slope, it kept going, about 3 1/2 feet past the hole.
''I was probably thinking ahead, thinking about the next hole,'' Toms said. ''And I just got up there and missed it.''
It was a dramatic finish worthy of this tournament. On two of the scariest holes on the course, the 17th and 18th, they traded birdies. But on the 17th one last time, a hole designed for theater, it was a flat finish when Toms missed his putt.
''At that moment, when he missed that putt, as a fellow player I felt very sorry for him,'' Choi said. ''Because I know how that feels. I felt bad for him.''
The finish took the focus off some other dubious results.
U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell hit four balls in the water on his way to a 79. Nick Watney made 21 birdies and an eagle, but far too many mistakes to win.
Paul Goydos shot 69 and finished alone in third, enough for him to turn what had been a miserable start to his season into a $646,000 check that locks up his card for the year.
Ultimately, this was about Choi, who now feels at home in America raising his family and winning tournaments. This was his eighth career win, and it moved him to No. 15 in the world, and No. 2 in the Presidents Cup standing.
Asked his reaction to winning, his opening comments spoke volumes about Choi. He thanked God - Choi often gives a percentage of his winnings to the local church in town - and was overwhelmed by the crowd support.
And he thanked the players in his group whom he beat - Toms and McDowell.
''They helped me play the way I did, like a good friend would,'' Choi said. ''They were fantastic playing partners ... and I really want to thank them for their attitude.''