HONOLULU (AP) — K.J. Choi had a special audience Saturday at the Sony Open when 11 friends from his hometown in South Korea flew across the Pacific Ocean overnight to watch him play.
He made it worth the trip with another strong performance to extend his lead.
Choi opened with a pair of birdies and closed with a birdie from the bunker, giving him a 4-under 66 and a four-shot lead over rookie Tim Wilkinson as he tries to become the first outright wire-to-wire winner at Waialae in eight years.
“I felt a lot of support,” Choi said.
Two of the friends were financial backers when he started his career — one owns a hospital, the other a restaurant in Wondo, South Korea. They made plans to come to Oahu two months ago, although work kept them from arriving until the weekend.
Choi laughed when asked if there was pressure to make the cut.
Now, the pressure is on everyone chasing him.
Choi was at 15-under 195 and had the largest lead at Waialae since Paul Azinger led by five going into the final round in 2000. That also was the last wire-to-wire winner without ties in the Sony Open.
The only threat on a balmy afternoon came from a rookie who played in the morning.
Wilkinson, a left-hander from New Zealand playing in only his third PGA Tour event, birdied seven of his first 11 holes and finished with an 8-under 62 for the best round of the week.
Kevin Na, who started the third round two shots behind, couldn’t keep up with Choi’s birdie-birdie start and only a pair of birdies on the final four holes left him in the mix. Na shot 69 and was at 10-under 210 with Stephen Marino (68).
Another shot back was a group that included Chad Campbell, who sized up the situation for everyone chasing Choi.
“He’s going to be tough,” Campbell said. “He hits a lot of fairways, and that’s what you have to do out here.”
Choi is 4-0 on the PGA Tour when he has the lead going into the final round, and his average score is 67 in those situations.
Wilkinson at least has experience with a decent crowd at Waialae. He played the first two rounds with 17-year-old island favorite Tadd Fujikawa, who missed the cut. Fujikawa had the largest gallery the first two days, and while the fans ignored the newcomer from New Zealand, Wilkinson said it sure beat his last few years on the Nationwide Tour.
“It’s a lot of fun playing in front of people. You hit a good shot, you actually get applause,” Wilkinson said. “On the Nationwide Tour, you might hit a good shot and you get nothing.”
Even so, the gallery Sunday figures to be one-sided.
Choi is popular in these parts, with several fans showing up Saturday with South Korean flags, and his group of friends dressed in yellow. He birdied his first two holes from inside 10 feet and nearly made an ace on the fourth as he quickly expanded his lead.
“I figured I’d lose some ground to K.J.,” Marino said. “I think I can (catch him), but I’ll need some help from him.”
Campbell is hitting the ball so well that he didn’t miss a fairway, quite a feat at Waialae. He also hit all 18 greens, but only converted four birdie putts to finish with a 66.
It looked early on that Choi wouldn’t leave anyone with a chance.
He hit his approach to 3 feet on the opening hole for birdie, made a 10-foot birdie on the next hole, and his tee shot on the par-3 fourth took a few hops and hit the back of the cup before spinning 12 feet away. He had to settle for par.
The only player who seriously threatened Choi was already done for the day. Wilkinson made his final birdie as Choi was heading to the first tee, and the 11-under 199 stayed on the leaderboard the entire day.
Wilkinson quietly put together the best round of the tournament, starting with back-to-back birdies, and it included a bunker shot he holed on the seventh. He didn’t get anyone’s attention until two more birdies to start the back nine, putting him at 7 under for his round and threatening the course record.
But the birdies dried up until the end, when he hit a good wedge into 3 feet.
“It didn’t come into my mind at all, funnily enough,” Wilkinson said about a course record (60) or better. “But on 12, 13, 14, I left them right in the middle. So had those gone in, I probably would have thought about it.”
The 29-year-old Kiwi seems unflappable, and he has a history of that. He started the final round of Q-school on the cut line, then closed with a 68 to tie for 14th and earn his card for the first time.
“The night before the final round at Q-school, I slept nine hours straight,” he said. “I wasn’t even worried about it. I was right on the number. And that night, I couldn’t sleep that night after I qualified. It meant a lot.”
He’ll get plenty of time to sleep in Sunday, and maybe nerves will set in eventually.
PGA Tour officials ran into another obstacle Saturday when Kenneth Ferrie (4 under) had to withdraw with a stomach virus. It’s usually last-place money, but the debate was whether he should get the same amount as those who made the cut at even par but did not qualify to play on the weekend because of a cut that exceeded 78 players. … Stephen Ames shot a 65 that featured only one loose shot that cost him dearly. His tee shot on No. 11 got stuck in a palm tree, and he could not identify it. “I asked for a crane, but they wouldn’t give me one,” Ames said. He had to go back to the tee and took double bogey. Ames was at 7-under 203.