Ho-sung Choi — aka, golf’s social-media sensation du jour — didn’t sleep a wink on the 13-hour flight from Seoul to Los Angeles. Not because he was anxious about making his PGA Tour debut at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but because he’d heard that resisting the urge to snooze would help him curb the effects of jet lag.
Turned out Choi had another jet-lag-buster going for him, too.
“When I got off the plane and was walking through immigration my heart was beating with excitement,” he said through an interpreter in a phone interview late last week. “Finally, I get to step on U.S. soil!”
Choi can credit an unlikely source for his first trip to America: the power of social media. This time last year he was just another pro grinding out starts on the Korean and Japan tours. Then, in June, Choi and his cartoonish corkscrew swing made a run in the third round of the Korean Open, which Golf Channel broadcast in the wee hours in the U.S. American golf fans took notice. By the next morning a barrage of golf influencers were chirping on Twitter and Instagram about the surreal, Happy-Gilmorian spectacle that was Choi’s swing.
He didn’t win that tournament — a Sunday 74 dropped him into a tie for fifth — but five months later Choi did find the winner’s circle when he picked up his second career Japan Golf Tour title at the Casio World Open. Ho-sung Fever returned.
U.S. fans were so keen to see Choi play stateside that a teacher in Arizona started a petition to bring Choi to the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Despite thousands of signatures, the WMPO didn’t bite. But another PGA Tour event did. On Jan. 14, Choi announced that he had accepted an invitation to play at one of the Tour’s most high-profile stops, the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. A day later, Pebble Pro-Am regular and Super Bowl-winning quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweeted, “Definitely pair him with me.”
Ho-sung Choi had officially arrived.
Choi’s literal U.S. landfall came nine days ago, when he touched down at LAX with his wife, Jina Wang, their two teenage sons, Seohyun and Seoho, and a close family friend who had helped arrange their itinerary. Forget the hotel — their first stop was Universal Studios. First meal? In-N-Out Burger. (“I heard it was famous,” Choi said.) Over the next few days he also snuck in a couple of rounds, at Newport Beach Country Club and Shady Canyon.
After six days in L.A., the Chois headed north for Monterey, where Ho-sung is now readying himself for the glitz of Pebble week. He said he had heard that Rodgers had expressed interest in playing with him — “I am deeply moved” — but also copped to not being an NFL fan.
Any other celebs he’d like to peg it with?
“I don’t know what other celebrities are coming to play.”
I told Choi that the actor and comedian Bill Murray is a mainstay at the event, although he hasn’t yet committed to playing this year.
“Who?” Choi said. “I think I would have to see a picture to know.”
Is he nervous about playing on so grand a stage?
“I haven’t really thought about it, but I’m honored to be playing with the PGA players,” he said. “I’m not really concerned with anything else. I’ll be competing with myself and with that mindset I think I might be able to beat some other players.”
Rory McIlroy isn’t in the field, but the four-time major winner didn’t hold back at Torrey Pines two weeks ago when a reporter asked him about Choi. “If you watch it up until impact, he’s technically got a pretty good swing. He’s obviously a pretty good player,” McIlroy said. “Whether that means he should be taking a spot away from a PGA Tour player at a PGA Tour event, I’m not so sure.
“I’m not sure a golf shot should mean that much to you that you’re doing that after you hit it, like it’s just trying a little too hard. You have to try hard at golf, but that’s taking it to an extreme.”
McIlroy’s not the first observer to suggest that Choi’s theatrics are overwrought. After the third round of the Casio, Japanese TV analyst Take Koyama light-heartedly grilled Choi on the air about his “well-known fisherman swing.”
“You must be doing it on purpose, right?” Koyama said.
Replied Choi, through his caddie and translator, “I do it to get my distance.”
But Koyama wasn’t satisfied.
“No way! You must be doing it on purpose. You are able to balance [on] the follow through, but you dance intentionally.”
Choi took Koyama’s ribbing in stride, explaining calmly that if his ball “doesn’t go the way I plan it, I try to make it go that way by waving the club.”
Choi told me that he was aware of McIlroy’s comments, but if you were hoping for a spicy rebuttal, Choi’s not your guy. “I’m not that concerned with that remark,” he said. “I will do my best next week, and I think I have the chance to win. I respect the opinions of other people. Everyone is different, how they think, how they swing. I accept that and enjoy it and think about it positively. I think that is what makes life fun and that is how I have been living.”
When pressed about he responds to skeptics who question his eccentric body English, Choi said: “I started playing golf late so I didn’t go through any elite training. When I move my body to hit the ball, this is how my body responds. The ball is round, right? Tennis ball, table-tennis ball, baseball, eight-ball — any ball moves according to how you hit it, where you hit it, and how your body is positioned. So when I am planning for the shot that I want, I need to shift my weight to the opposite side to prevent missed shots, and I use this swing as a way to do that.”
The “Ho” in Ho-sung’s name means “tiger” and “sung” means “star.” As it was told to Ho-sung, his father gave him the name because he wanted his son to be as courageous as a tiger and as bright as a star. Ho-sung’s star has never shined brighter than it has in the last seven months. As he has learned how to manage his burgeoning fame, he has joined Facebook and Instagram to help him better connect with his fans. “All the attention and love is overwhelming and I am always thankful,” he said.
Choi frequently references his gratitude. He came from humble beginnings and fashioned his self-taught swing entirely through feel. He’s never had an instructor, a stats consultant, or even a TrackMan session. That he is playing professional golf at any level is remarkable. He said his greatest motivation for playing at Pebble is to “pay back” his fans for all their support — in Korea, Japan, across Asia, and now in the U.S.
As we concluded our interview, he asked through the interpreter if he might offer a few parting words.
“I want to say something to my fans,” he said. “I hope people can get acquainted to golf through me and approach it comfortably. I hope they enjoy the sport as much as I do. I hope they will love and support golf. The reason I could come to the States was through the support of my American fans. I thank them very much and I hope they are happy and not get stressed while playing golf. I hope they develop their own style and have fun. I will be doing my best and hope they can cheer me on. Thank you!”
To which American golf fans might say, “No, Ho-sung, thank you.”