Choi takes Tiger title, boosts confidence for Asian major win

BETHESDA, United States (AFP) - K.J. Choi captured the biggest victory of his career Sunday by winning the inaugural PGA National, the second time in five weeks the South Korean star won a tournament hosted by a legend.

Five weeks after winning Jack Nicklaus' signature Memorial event, Choi took the first PGA event hosted by Tiger Woods and boosted his belief that he can become Asia's first major champion with the British Open just two weeks away.

"This tournament is really too big for me to absorb right now," Choi said. "It's definitely the biggest win of my career. It's just unbelievable. I feel great right now. It gives me so much more confidence."

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Choi's best major finish was third at the 2004 Masters, the same year he managed his best British Open finish with a share of 16th at Royal Troon. He missed the US Open cut last month and shared 27th at the Masters last April.

"My life's dream is to become the first Asian to win a major," Choi said. "I'm going to work very hard at it."

Choi chipped in for birdie from a greenside bunker at the 17th hole to seal the victory, firing a final-round two-under par 68 to finish on nine-under 271 and defeat US veteran Steve Stricker by three strokes.

"I'm just shocked at myself being able to win Jack's and Tiger's tournaments. I can't really express in words what this means to me," Choi said.

"Both wins are very special to me. I can't really say which one makes me feel better. Thay're both valuable. Winning both events tells me I have a lot of respect from both players. I feel very honored to win their tournaments."

Choi, 37, gives Woods' event a hefty edge in one area, however.

"I can say Tiger's trophy is a lot heavier than Jack's," Choi said.

The triumph was Choi's sixth career US PGA title and makes this his first season since 2002 with multiple US tour victories.

Choi won a 1.08 million-dollar top prize, the same as at the Memorial, in the six million-dollar event at Congressional Country Club, where more than 37,000 people watched in high heat and humidity both Saturday and Sunday.

"It's definitely something that brings happiness to Koreans, North and South," Choi said. "It's a meaningful win."

Australian Stuart Appleby, trying for a wire-to-wire win, fired a 76 to share third with Americans Jim Furyk and Pat Perez on 277 with Woods and Aussie Robert Allenby another stroke back.

Americans Woody Austin, Hunter Mahan and Pat Perez qualified for the British Open based on their results, although Austin said he will not go to Carnoustie.

Stricker and Choi reached the back nine tied for the lead and four strokes clear of the field but both stumbled. Choi began the back nine with a pair of bogeys and gave back his birdie at 12 with a bogey on the next hole.

But Stricker made bogeys at 11, 14 and 15 while Choi birdied the par-4 15th and sank the crucial birdie bunker blast on 17, following it with a Tiger-like fist pump.

"It's just a gesture that came naturally with all the fans cheering," Choi said.

"All this week I had a good feel on my bunker shots. I wasn't trying to put it in the hole. All I was trying to do was save par. I put the ball where I wanted and I guess the speed and undulation was right. It surprised me."

Stricker has not won since the 2001 World Golf Championships Match-Play and has not won a stroke-play event since the 1996 Western Open. He also finished second in May at Charlotte, losing to Woods.

"It was a great experience again but not really what I was looking for," Stricker said. "I can gain some confidence from the event and maybe one of these times finish it off.

"This kind of stings. It's not a great feeling but you can still take a lot of positives from it. It's a tough enough game without beating yourself up over finishing second."

Stricker was in the 18th fairway when Choi made the decisive chip-in.

"Stuff like that happens when you're going to win. It's destiny. Good for him. He must have played well," Stricker said. "It's up to me to make the birdies on the back nine and I just haven't gotten over the hump."

Appleby's dream of a ninth US PGA title vanished almost as quickly as he did after horror-show putting in the final round. He took a double bogey at the second and made four bogeys in a row starting at the fourth plus another at 18.

"It was unfortunate to see him struggling," playing partner Choi said. "I know how it feels. I've been in that position too."

Woods made bogeys at the fourth and seventh holes, sinking a 12-footer on the latter to avoid a double. He bounced back with a birdie at the eighth but made a double bogey at the par-5 ninth to take himself out of the hunt.


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