Early Nicklaus lessons pay off for Choi

Early Nicklaus lessons pay off for Choi

Choi had six birdies on the front nine Sunday.
Kiichiro Sato/AP

DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — Twenty years separated two images of Jack Nicklaus, both meaningful in their own way to K.J. Choi.

Nicklaus was the champion who filled every page of a pictorial instruction book that Choi studied religiously as a teenager in South Korea, a gift from his physical education teacher who encouraged him to pursue a career in golf.

“As I started reading it, I could understand why he was such a great golfer, because all the things that were written really started to make sense,” Choi said. “That’s how I really got into golf, by reading the book.”

Nicklaus was the tournament host at the Memorial who stood behind the 18th green Sunday afternoon with a proud smile and hearty handshake for Choi, who closed with a 7-under 65 for a one-shot victory over Ryan Moore.

“Thank you, Jack,” Choi said to him.

Indeed, it was a textbook performance.

Choi finished off his string of four birdies on the front nine with a 7-iron he carved around the trees lining the right side of the ninth fairway into 8 feet.

“A cut shot, Jack-style,” Choi said with a laugh.

Then came a series of pars that were equally significant, all made with clutch putts. Choi took only 12 putts on the back nine, finishing with a 7-foot par save from the bunker on the 16th, a 15-foot par save from the gallery behind the 17th green, and a tricky 5-foot save from the bunker on the 18th hole that ultimately gave him his fifth career victory on the PGA Tour.

Considering the host and the history, it was by far his biggest.

“I just feel very honored and very happy to be living in the same time as Jack is living, and to win his tournament is so meaningful to me,” Choi said. “I can only think that this was meant to be.”

It certainly wasn’t for those trying to catch him.

Rod Pampling had a three-shot lead going into the final round, which was delayed an hour in the morning when rain pounded Muirfield Village. He made a late bid with a 30-foot eagle putt on the 16th hole to get within one shot, then promptly fired his approach on the 17th over the green and into the gallery, taking bogey.

“We were trying to guess the wind,” Pampling said. “That was a really solid shot I hit in there. It was just straight at the stick. Unfortunately, we picked the breeze right-to-left, and when we got down to the green, it was helping us.”

He wound up with a 72 and tied for third with Kenny Perry, who shot 63 and was among half-dozen players in a wild chase.

Adam Scott overcame a blunder on the 11th when he couldn’t clear the creek out of the deep rough. He birdied the 15th and 16th holes to get within one shot, but he three-putted from the fringe on the 17th for bogey. He added a bogey from the edge of the bunker on the 18th that only cost him money, closing with a 70 to tie for fifth.

“It would have been nice to have a chance on 18,” Scott said. “A bad read, a bad putt on 17 ended that.”

Moore was mistake-free after opening with a bogey, and he made a torrid charge at the end with five straight birdies. His approach to the 18th came up 40 feet short, and he two-putted for par and a 66.

“To play slightly poorly early in the round … to all of a sudden jump myself back into it those last few holes, I couldn’t be happier right now,” Moore said. “I’ll definitely build some confidence from it and keep moving forward.”

Choi finished at 17-under 271 and earned $1.08 million.

Kenny Perry had the best round, 9 under through 15 holes until finishing with three pars for a 63 to tie for third with Pampling. Sean O’Hair had another solid performance, closed with a 70 and was another shot back with Stewart Cink (69) and Fredrik Jacobson (68).

Tiger Woods made progress in his final tournament before the U.S. Open. He finally holed his share of putts and closed with a 67 to tie for 15th, then headed for Oakmont for one final practice round.

“It was progressing all week, which was nice,” Woods said.

Woods walked to the practice range in the morning studying a weather map on his cell phone, and it looked as though storms would threaten most of the afternoon. All it did was soften the course and turn the final round into a shootout.

Even so, Pampling had a chance to set the pace. He led by three shots and had said if he kept making birdies, everyone would have to work hard to catch him. He didn’t make his first birdie until the par-5 seventh.

Choi didn’t have the most sensational stretch of birdies, but perhaps the most timely. Oddly enough, his big run began with a par. He hit into the water trying to reach the par-5 fifth hole in two, but saved par with a 6-foot putt.

Then came a 10-foot birdie on the sixth, a two-putt birdie from 30 feet on the seventh, and he took the lead for the first time with a 12-foot birdie on the par-3 eighth. And with trees slightly blocking his angle from the right side of the fairway at No. 9, his approach spun back 8 feet below the cup for his fourth straight birdie to go out in 30.

He sprinkled in great par saves from the bunker on No. 10 and from behind the 14th green, one of the most difficult shots. His final birdie came with a two-putt on the 17th, and then came the succession of clutch par putts.

Most of those were right-to-left, which Choi calls “hook putts.” Those are his favorites, because his first victory in Japan came with such a putt from 15 feet on the final hole at the Ube Kosan Open. That victory earned him an invitation to the Memorial in 1999.

Just his luck, he was paired with Nicklaus in the third round that year, and the man in the book came to life.

The greatest thrill was Sunday afternoon, Nicklaus at his side, the crystal trophy between them.

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