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Interview with K.J. Choi

  • Story Highlights
  • "In golf games, you are not fighting with others, but with yourself"
  • "When winning the title, God becomes my power"
  • "Hole by hole continue in ... simple swing, patience and focus"
  • "I think for a lot of athletes, they make up their own emotional struggles"
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SEOUL, South Korea (CNN) -- K.J. Choi is the only Asian among the world's top 10 golfers and the first South Korean to win a PGA Tour card. Nicknamed "The Tank" after his days as a competitive weightlifter, Choi realized his passion for golf as a teenager and pursued a professional career against the advice of his parents. His golfing inspiration was a book written by the legendary "Golden Bear" Jack Nicklaus. Choi attributes his success to Nicklaus' "My Way," where he learned the grip, swing and other fundamentals of his game. This year, Choi won the Jack Nicklaus memorial tournament, and he discusses in detail his hopes for climbing further up the world rankings.

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South Korean top golfer K.J. Choi

BLOCK A

KJ: Anjali?

AR: Yes, are you gonna teach me how to do this?

KJ: Yes, you some play golf or not?

AR: Me? That's something I should tell you, I'm very bad at this.

KJ: Very bad.

AR: But after you teach me, I'll be great.

KJ: I think so. Very simple in golf. Too much thinking is a problem.

AR: It looks simple, but I don't know if it is simple.

KJ: No, you hit it in or out. 50/50.

AR: Preferably in.

KJ: All right, so I show you... Ok, you try.

AR: Ok, here we go. This is going to be decidedly unspectacular.

KJ: Left hand top and right hand bottom, yeah. Ok, and then hips square.

AR: That's difficult to hold.

KJ: No no, I say simple.

AR: All right, this is the simple pose.

KJ: You know knee, in a square. And then see in the ball, and then face is in the square and then back stroke, and then...

AR: Aww, first time! First time! Ok, here we go, wish me luck!

(Hits ball in)

AR: Yes, thank you sir, I couldn't have done it without you.

KJ: Anyway, in the knee, in the chest, in the shoulder, that's all square. And the hand just don't move, and then the shoulder turn, and then hit it, done.

AR: That's the secret.

KJ: Yeah, very secret, yeah. Either way the more practice, the more easier. In the first time is very tough.

AR: Now you're the only Asian in the top 50 world rankings right now. I believe you're number 9. Is number 1 in your sights?

KJ: I think, at the moment, it would be too difficult to be number 1. Tiger's doing a good job keeping the number 1 place, and the other number 1, 2 and 3 players are playing too strongly. Therefore, I think it might be a bit of a stretch right now. But three years ago, my target was to be among the global top 10 players. I wished to be the first Asian Major winner within five years. However, in three years, I became one of the top 10 players, which made me very happy this year. However, I think the future is more important. Instead of targeting to become number 1, I think for now it is important to do my best in this position.

AR: So four top tens in major championships, but then sometimes people do get at you for fading out, in the majors. Do you think that that's a fair criticism?

KJ: There are more pressures in the Major games than ordinary games on the whole. If there is insufficient practice or your mental status gets loose, then you cannot play your game. There can be many such cases. In my case, regardless of those criticisms, I have been doing well up to now. I think the most important thing is how I play my game and how I maintain concentration. Therefore, I don't really mind criticism or comments that much. I simply do my best in my game. I do not have complaints about the negative results as long as I do my best.

AR: You've just won Tiger Woods inaugural tournament, the AT&T national, which was an enormous achievement. How much did that mean to you?

KJ: Before going to that AT&T national game, I was resting at home for about a week. I didn't have any idea about that course. The only thing I knew was that at the U.S. Open in 1994, Ernie Els had won the title on this same course. And when he won the title, he had a wonderful shot on the 17th hole. The only thing that I was prepared for during the rest was that since this course was perhaps designed a long time ago, nice fade shots would be good and to a certain degree, I wouldn't face the risk cut, and obtain the upper-middle rank. Winning the title was totally out of my expectation. I thought I should just do good mady-cut. I think God made use of me.

AR: No doubt, that was a stunning win, but you do lose sometimes. How do you handle it when you do?

KJ: In golf games, you are not fighting with others, but with yourself. It depends on my own emotion, my rhythm at that moment, if I slept well on the previous night or not, if I've eaten well, etc. Even if I eat well, I might have a stomach ache. You are fighting with yourself. It all depends how much I have prepared and how much I focus on the game. Regardless of how other players play, I should play my golf game. However, when these things are working well, then I myself might feel inferior or feel depressed. All these things keep me loose during the tournament. The most important point is not anybody else but the fight with myself. In this fight with myself, my big mental support is God. When I always pray and praise God it comforts me. Furthermore, when winning the title, God becomes my power.

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BLOCK B

AR: So K.J., let me ask you, you're about to tee off on this beautiful green. How do you approach a shot like this? Talk me through your tactics.

KJ: Sometimes the left to right wind is stronger, there's more aimed the left side.

AR: How do you know that the ball is gonna turn?

KJ: It's practice.

AR: Oh that. So where are we aiming for?

KJ: Aiming for over there in the next fairway.

AR: It must take a lot of concentration and a lot of focus. How do you make sure that you keep your focus, that you don't get distracted, or you don't get nervous?

KJ: Every player little bit nervous when starting, which way left and right. But keep going hole by hole and continue play, it's very important. And hole by hole continue in focus and patience -- two things, very, very important. And simple swing, patience and focus.

AR: See, this is why I will never be a great golf player, I have no patience.

KJ: Ha ha, yeah.

AR: How much training do you have to do to get to be as good as you are? Do you have to do this every single day?

KJ: No, it's every other day weight training, and then strength, stretching is every day morning and evening. So my workout is once a week, three times. And then every day the stretching, you know, strength, and flexible in the stretch.

AR: And then, obviously, all this walking you have to do.

KJ: Yeah, right now it's a little hot today... You can't see it?

AR: No.

KJ: Why? You can see in the sky!

AR: So you know when you're doing those big tee-off shots and you swing your arms right back like that, don't you ever get injuries?

KJ: No.

AR: Why? It's a huge motion.

KJ: Used to hit it, and every time hit it and used to in the hand will work out and recovering the body, and then I'm hitting a thousand balls every day and then off season.

AR: A thousand balls every day...

KJ: Yeah, a thousand balls... In the morning 400 balls, and then after lunch 400 balls, and exactly hours hours in the play, and then practice.

AR: So this is your job, this is what you do for a living. Can you ever just play golf anymore for fun?

KJ: No, not fun.

AR: This is work!

KJ: Yeah. So I'm very serious, you know, the tournament is so... It's very sensitive in sports because, you know, we every time with a ball and focus and hit, it is very important, and then someone in the people and noise, and then you can't do it and not concentration, and then hit it and very quick spinning and the ball out.

AR: So what happens then when you're at a tournament, and there's all these people there watching, and somebody makes a noise just when you're about to do the shot? Do you get angry?

KJ: No. It's, I am stop in swing and then routine again. You know in the setup first, and then practice swing, and then keep patient the ball, and then same same the rhythm and then simple swing. And then sometimes you can't stop, trouble. Never am I angry in golf course. So keep patient.

BLOCK C

AR: You learnt how to play this game by studying what Jack Nicholas had to say about it. What were the most valuable things that you learned from him?

KJ: Wando Island, where I was born, is a small island. When I was in high school, they built an indoor driving range, and the intention at that time was to train middle or high school students to be golfers. When I first started at that time, there were neither golf coaches nor good books available. Someone sent me a book from Seoul that Jack Nicklaus had written called "My Way," which taught me how to grip the clubs and how to swing. At that time, through this book, I learned a lot of English golf terminology. I got to learn that Jack Nicklaus was an excellent player with great achievement. Since that book was written by such a player, I simply followed what the book said. That is how I started practicing. Now, I am on the global top 10 players, I've achieved major championships and memorials or AT&T. Who would have thought that one book could bring such big results?

AR: Before you turned pro in golfing in the early '90s, you were still an athlete, you were a competitive weightlifter. Why did you decide to give that up?

KJ: There's a build that's suitable for a weightlifter. But, in my case, I have long arms with short legs, it's unbalanced. And so I was pushed aside by the younger weightlifters, but could not defend myself. At that time, after quitting weightlifting, my high school PE teacher recommended the students to play golf. We all refused this proposal, because none of us knew about golf. I wanted to restart weightlifting, to be a weightlifter, during my high school days. I volunteered to do it again. But, suddenly my teacher suggested that I should start playing golf. That is how I started to play golf. Six students were chosen, and none of them knew about golf when asked about it. The teacher took us to the practice range, put the balls on the tees, and gave 6 or 7 iron clubs, saying that anyone who can hit over the net, I think it was about 70 yards away, did not have to pick up the balls that day. So, all six of us tried, and I was the only one who hit over the net. The feeling that I sensed at that moment, compared to other sports such as weightlifting or baseball, was unforgettable. So, golf engulfed me, and I kept practicing despite the disapproval from my parents and teacher. I was crazy about it, which made me what I am today.

AR: It has been said that your female counterparts here such as Pak Se Ri and Grace Park are sort of, overshadowing your accomplishments, perhaps, even though you are this country's most successful golfer. Do you think that's true?

KJ: I don't really agree. I do not think it really matters how much results it brings. As long as you are satisfied, it does not matter what others say about becoming a top player in that area. It's about how satisfied you are about your own game. Who cares what others say about you. And also it's important to feel the value in your own achievement. So I plan to keep on trying and I think it's important to the fans to keep on putting on good performances. Of course Pak Se Ri and Grace Park have made major achievements in the LPGA, but also I think as K.J. Choi I've made a significant accomplishment, and I plan to keep on trying to put on a better performance every time.

AR: When Pak Se Ri was a guest on this show, she shared with us the emotional turmoil that she's been through as a result of this game. There was a time where she hated golf and decided that she never even wanted to look at another club again. Have you ever struggled with the demands of being a professional athlete as she has?

KJ: I think for a lot of athletes, they make up their own emotional struggles. They tell themselves, oh, what's wrong with me, why is this not working out for me? And that's how you end up making your own slump. But I believe that in order to learn a single thing, it takes a lot of time. At the end of the day, everything's going to work out, but if things don't go well I tell myself I'm in the midst of finding that goal, finding a way to reach that goal. I've never wanted to stop playing or quit for a single moment, because I truly love golf, and this is what keeps me going.

AR: Away from the actual playing of the game, you also endorse Nike, as if we couldn't see that from your hat and your top. What exactly does that involve you doing?

KJ: For an athlete, the balls that we use or the golf clubs and the clothing are important because they determine a good game. It's my third year with Nike and I've been performing very well, and so as a member of a global company such as Nike, I feel very proud. I think that relationship helps me perform better in games as well.

AR: Asia is being touted as the next big thing for this sport. For one thing, we're seeing courses popping up all over the place. Do you share that hope?

KJ: I've heard that half the world's population lives in Asia, meaning there's a lot of land available for the future development of golf. I think one day Asian players will be able to play with pride all over the world. When I first heard that not a single Asian player was able to win a Major competition over the past 147 years, I was really surprised. It has been 147 years since golf was introduced in Asia. During those years, challenges, efforts and power of many players have been carried on up to now. From now on, active golfers like us should contribute. In this way, I am confident it will further spur the popularity of golf in Asia.

AR: So many of your fans are going to be watching this and saying to themselves, you know, I want to do what he does. What would you say to tomorrow's K.J. Choi's about making it in this game and being professional at it?

KJ: I'd like to say that the most difficult thing up to now is the promises that I make to myself. For example, I tell myself that I'm going to hit 600 balls today during eight hours of training. After hitting 300 or 400 balls well with good concentration, I feel tempted to go home. However, I have made promise to myself. While doing the work out, it is difficult and I feel tired to the extreme with a temptation to stop, because no one is watching. However, I do it because it is a promise to myself.

AR: K.J., it was really marvelous to meet you, thank you very much indeed for spending time with us today.

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KJ: Thank you.

AR: And that's it from Talk Asia for now, thank you for being with me, Anjali Rao and my guest today the South Korean golfing legend K.J. Choi. I'll see you again soon, bye-bye. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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