Choi & Pain

Choi & Pain

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K.J. Choi was greeted by Jack Nicklaus on Sunday.
Fred Vuich/SI

Ready or not, here comes the U.S.
Open. Ready or not? Oh, definitely not.
Everything we know about next week’s
Open we were supposed to learn at last
week’s Memorial Tournament, the final
important stop before the national championship.

Oakmont, we have a problem. We left the emerald
hills of Muirfield Village Golf Club with more questions
than answers. All we learned was that soft greens and no
wind can turn even Jack Nicklaus’s ode to Augusta into a
Bob Hope Classic impersonator. Seriously, check out these
numbers: Adam Scott shot a 10-under 62 (and was a pair
of lipped-out putts and two misses from inside five feet from
a 58); Kenny Perry had a closing 63; and winner K.J. Choi
had a sweat-free 30 on the front nine on Sunday. How low
did they go in Ohio? Three of the top four finishers — Choi,
Ryan Moore and Perry — were a combined 22 under par in
the final round.

“It made for an exciting finish because
we had 15 players with an opportunity to win with nine
holes to go,” said Nicklaus. “When the wind comes up and
dries this course out, it’s tough, but we didn’t have that. It is
what it is.”

Fine, but that doesn’t answer our Open queries,
Jack. Such as, Is the newly Harmonized Phil Mickelson ready
to bury his meltdown at Winged Foot? Mickelson was a
member of the walking wounded when he left Muirfield Village
after 11 holes clutching his left wrist, which he apparently
injured during meticulous Open preparation and perhaps
too many practice shots from Oakmont’s thick rough.

Jim Weathers, a physical therapist popular with PGA Tour
players for his use of Shiatsu, a Japanese massage technique,
worked on Mickelson’s wrist for several holes before Lefty
called it a tournament. A subsequent MRI showed inflammation
but no severe damage, and Mickelson optimistically
committed to play this week in Memphis but admitted that
his appearance was questionable because he didn’t want to
“jeopardize the opportunity to compete in the U.S. Open.”
Will Phil be O.K. for Oakmont? Good question.

Here’s
another one, Jack. Is Tiger Woods ready to win another Open
and move to within five of your record 18 majors? He’ll
surely be better prepared than he was for the Memorial.

Woods admitted he hadn’t
played much recently. In the
weeks since his last start, at the
Players Championship, he was
sick with strep throat and otherwise
stretched a little thin.
He appeared at a press conference
for the AT&T National,
the tournament he’s hosting
next month outside Washington,
D.C. He also held a golf
clinic in Las Vegas over Memorial
Day weekend for his annual
TigerJam fund-raiser, and
he continued to prepare to become
a first-time father. “I’ve
been a little busy,” Woods said.
“My time-management skills
are going to be tested. Thankfully,
I don’t sleep much.”

So it was a pleasant surprise,
perhaps, that Tiger was even remotely
sharp. He struck the ball
superbly on the back nine last
Saturday, and on Sunday he
drove it well and shot a 67 to finish
15th. His putting wasn’t horrible,
but he didn’t make many,
either. His official self-evaluation?
“Progressing,” he said. A fair
analysis and always a chilling
thought: Tiger on the upswing.

We didn’t learn much about
possible Open contenders, either,
Jack, given the un-Openlike
conditions. A quartet of
Aussies came up short on Sunday
by basically beating themselves.
Aaron Baddeley stalled
with a closing 71 and tied for
ninth. Rod Pampling, the thirdround
leader, eagled the 15th
hole to pressure Choi, but badly
overclubbed at the 17th and
made a bogey that ended his
chances. He tied for third. Scott,
who tied for fifth, gamely birdied
the par-3 16th but then threeputted
the 17th after a second
putt that, he admitted, “looked
awful.” Defending U.S. Open
champion Geoff Ogilvy bogeyed
two of the last three holes and
dropped to a tie for ninth.

Perhaps we did find a dark
horse for the Open, Jack. Your
winner, Choi, is a hero in his
homeland as the first South Korean
to make it to the PGA Tour.
He’s quick with a smile and is
working on his English. That
language barrier has always
kept the media away, which is
why he’s underrated. He grew
up the son of a rice farmer and
as a teenage powerlifter earned
the nickname Tank because he
could squat 350 pounds although
he weighed a mere 95.
He didn’t have the upper-body
strength to pursue that sport,
so he turned to golf at 16, when
a teacher gave him a Jack Nicklaus
instruction book with Korean
text.

At Muirfield, Choi earned his
fifth victory with an improved
short game. He wouldn’t have
won without the eight birdies
he made on Sunday or the pars
he saved on four of the last five
holes. A bump-and-run chip
through the fringe to three feet
on the 14th was brilliant. “That
was a very impressive chip,”
Nicklaus told him. “Incidentally,
that was not in my book.”

Like Nicklaus, Choi plays a
high fade. “K.J., this works very
well at Oakmont,”Nicklaus said,
waving his hand to indicate a
left-to-right ball flight. Choi nodded
and smiled. He understood.
The look on his face said that
he’ll be more ready than not.