PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. To chase his dream, K.J. Choi had to climb a mountain.
His arms were too long for a future in powerlifting, and baseball was just starting to take off in South Korea when he was a teenager. Without money to buy a baseball and bat, Choi went to the nearest mountain, cut down a pine tree and fashioned his own bat. He played with a tennis ball, but it just wasn't the same. So imagine how he felt when he went to a driving range for a golf demonstration.
"Getting to hit a golf ball for the first time with an actual iron, I couldn't forget that solid feeling," Choi said. "It felt much better hitting a golf ball with a real club than hitting a tennis ball with my bat. And that's when I fell in love with it. I told myself, 'Just start golfing, and let's see how far it will take me.' And I kept with it."
It has carried him to 17 wins around the world, including the Players Championship, and more than $27 million in career earnings on the PGA Tour. He was the first South Korean to join the PGA Tour when he made it through qualifying school in 1999.
Now, finally, he has company, with eight Korean players on the PGA Tour, a group that does not include John Huh, who was born in New York but grew up in South Korea. He made it through Q-school and already has won this year at the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. Huh will be making his major championship debut starting Thursday at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in the British Open.
These days, it is much easier for the likes of Seung-yul Noh, Sang-Moon Bae and Sunghoon Kang, who are among the South Korean-born players on the PGA Tour. Beyond American shores, only Australia has more PGA Tour players. They also have role models in Choi and Y.E. Yang, the first Asian man to win a major when he took down Tiger Woods in the 2009 PGA Championship.
Most of them are products of the Korea Golf Association, which is pouring resources into golf and has produced a national team that could be the model for other developing golf nations.
How strong is the national team? Korea won the gold medal in the prestigious Asian Games in 2006 in Qatar with a team that featured Kang and Presidents Cup player K.T. Kim. Noh, who was 18 when he defeated Choi in the 2010 Malaysian Open, was an alternate. Bae, who started this year at No. 30 in the world and lost in the quarterfinals to Rory McIlroy at the Match Play Championship, wasn't good enough to make the team.
"I tried," Bae said with a laugh. "But there were too many good amateurs in Korea, so I couldn't."
A year ago, Bae became the second straight Korean to win the money title on the Japan Golf Tour. Kim won the Japan money title in 2010, while Noh topped the Order of Merit that year on the Asian Tour.
The ultimate stop is the PGA Tour, and the numbers are growing.
South Korean success in the United States starts with the women. Another reminder came last week when Na Yeon Choi won the U.S. Women's Open at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin, where Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Women's Open in 1998 and became a pioneer for women's golf in her country.
Korean membership on the LPGA Tour is approaching 50 players. More than 30 of them have won close to 100 times, and 10 have won majors.
For years after he became a PGA Tour winner, Choi rarely made it through an interview without being asked why there weren't as many Korean men.
The simple answer was the mandatory military service, which comes at a critical development stage for young golfers. Choi had to put in his two years at age 22. He was a rifleman, worked on a radar base and even spent time in the kitchen. His shift was to work two days and have two days off, during which time he could hit balls.
Some players have avoided military service by moving from South Korea (U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee to New Zealand, Kevin Na to America). Others have deferred until their 30s, and now there is a major incentive. Kang, for example, is exempt from his military service because he won a gold medal at the Asian Games. Players such as Noh and Bae are hopeful of an Olympic medal in 2016.
"That was a big deal for me," Kang said.
South Korea, meanwhile, has kept up with its growing demand for golf.
With 3 million golfers, the country has 500 courses, 4,000 driving ranges and some 9,000 certified instructors. Even so, the story behind its success lies with the overwhelming support from the Korea Golf Association, which has 3,600 players 2,000 of them men registered in its national program from ages 8 to 20.
Golf Digest in South Korea referred to the program as a "National Standing Army" of players, and the competition is stiff. The association takes eight players (four boys, four girls) at the elementary school level, 22 players from middle school, 26 players from high school and six players from the university level. An additional 12 comprise the national team. Being part of this "army" means their expenses are paid.
All of these developments cause the 42-year-old Choi to smile.
At the Memorial tournament this year, there was a poignant moment when two young South Korean golfers stood quietly to the side of the putting green to watch Choi, who was going out onto Muirfield Village for a practice round.
"When I first started winning on the PGA Tour, they were in their teens," Choi said. "They were kids. And now they're here."
20 PLAYERS TO WATCH
(Listed in predicted order of finish)
Player, Age, Comment
Lee Westwood, 39, Needs to forget staring up at that tree at Olympic Club, watching his U.S. Open hopes fade
Luke Donald, 34, Yes, he is No. 1 in the world, though his performance in majors remains a disappointment
Hunter Mahan, 30, Great ball-striker who will always have a reputation as a poor chipper until he wins a major
Ian Poulter, 36, Is a fit for the Open with his strong short game and a knack for getting the ball in the hole
Tiger Woods, 36, Has somehow morphed into Phil Mickelson no one can predict what he's going to do next
Branden Grace, 24, South African hits the ball a long way, though he will be playing in only his third major
Padraig Harrington, 41, Recent form has led some to wonder if the three-time major champion is on his way back
Steve Stricker, 45, The proverbial window is closing with every major that passes without him winning
Geoff Ogilvy, 35, He remains the most insightful interview in golf but has missed his last five cuts in the Open
Graeme McDowell, 32, Seems to have recovered from his post-2010 hangover and should be a factor
Ernie Els, 42, The Big Easy got a big shot of confidence with a gallant run at the U.S. Open
Tom Lehman, 53, Might be the latest senior to make an Open run, a la Greg Norman and Tom Watson
Rory McIlroy, 23, For the No. 2 player in the world, his form has been mysterious of late
Phil Mickelson, 42, Made a Sunday charge at Royal St. George's last year, only to miss a 3-foot putt on the 11th
Louis Oosthuizen, 29, Has maybe the best swing in golf; dangerous if he gets his putts rolling at the right speed
Justin Rose, 31, Hasn't missed a cut all year but was not a factor in either of the first two majors
Robert Rock, 35, Englishman outplayed Tiger Woods in the final round to win the Abu Dhabi Championship
Charl Schwartzel, 27, 2011 Masters winner has yet to play a round under par at the majors this year
Jim Furyk, 42, Must leave his U.S. Open meltdown behind; his low ball flight is a good fit for links golf
Darren Clarke, 43, The 2011 British Open winner has just one highlight this season: he got married