Choi leads Sony Open by one stroke after first round

1/10/2008 - Golf

HONOLULU -- K.J. Choi is accustomed to starting strong at the Sony Open, and Thursday's round was no different, as he closed with a birdie for a 6-under 64 to give him a one-shot lead and his sixth consecutive opening round in the 60s at Waialae Country Club.

Jimmy Walker usually expects the worst when he comes to these shores.

The former Nationwide Tour player of the year suffered a serious neck injury at the Sony Open in his rookie debut three years ago. Walker returned the next year and shot 80. A reluctant return to Waialae helped erase some bad vibes, as Walker was among three players at 65 on a day of low scoring and no wind.

It was reflected on the scoreboard, with more than half of the 144-man finishing under par.

That Choi was atop the leaderboard was no surprise. He also opened with a 64 last year and wound up in a tie for fourth. It was a continuation from last week at the winners-only Mercedes-Benz Championship, where Choi was in last place until closing 69-69.

"I'm getting back to my rhythm," he said.

Heath Slocum, who teamed with Boo Weekley for a runner-up finish at the World Cup in China over Thanksgiving, and Stephen Marino joined Walker at 65. The group at 66 included Mercedes winner Daniel Chopra, Chad Campbell and Rory Sabbatini.

Tadd Fujikawa, who turned 17 on Tuesday, was headed for a short week.

One year after he became the youngest player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour, Fujikawa never recovered from a double bogey on the second hole. He didn't make birdie until No. 12 and wound up with a 74, leaving him a long shot to earn his first paycheck since turning pro last summer. This is his eighth event as a pro.

"I had a rough day," Fujikawa said. "I've got to shoot a good round tomorrow to make the cut. I think I can do it. Anything is possible."

The other teen in the field, 17-year-old amateur Alex Ching, fared slightly better with a 72. Missing from the teen brigade was Michelle Wie, who is not playing the Sony Open for the first time since 2003. That was noticeable only by a sign in the backyard of a house along the first fairway, which was changed from "Wie Why?" last year to "Wie Where?"

Marino was a rookie last year and played the first two rounds with Wie.

"It was a lot different than last year," Marino said, a reference to a quiet afternoon. "I told my caddie on the first tee, this time last year I was standing on the first tee with Michelle Wie with about 3,000 people right behind us. It was a little bit different, but it was nice."

Another change: Anchor Kelly Tilghman wasn't in the booth for the Golf Channel.

She began serving a two-week suspension for playful comments last week in which she said young players wanting to challenge Tiger Woods might want to "lynch him in a back alley." Rich Lerner filled in for her.

Choi also noticed a difference in the gallery. The more he wins, the more support he seems to get. It helps that Honolulu has a large Korean population, but he said winning the Memorial and the AT&T National at Congressional didn't hurt.

"The way they look at me, it's all changed for the better," Choi said.

He is giving them something to cheer.

It began with a 20-foot birdie on the opening hole, one of only five birdies on Waialae's toughest holes, and an 18-footer on the sixth. Choi also handled the par-5s, but he was most pleased with keeping bogeys off his card.

"What's meaningful is that I had a bogey-free round," he said. "My score reflected it."

Walker, who turns 29 next week, is trying to forget about his first trip to Hawaii. He was the Nationwide Tour player of the year, a rookie in the big leagues, but he never made it to the first tee. While hitting balls on the range, he felt stiffness in his back and was taken to the emergency room, where tests revealed a bulging disk in his neck.

That set the tone for a year in which he played only nine times. The following year wasn't much better, but Walker made it back to the PGA Tour by finishing 25th on the Nationwide, earning the final card.

"When I saw I was getting in, I was like, 'Oh, good. I get to go back to Hawaii.' I've got some good memories," he said, smiling wryly. "My wife stayed home; it hasn't been a great couple of trips for us. When you get in, you've got to play."

The blessing was playing well, starting with a birdie on No. 10, his first hole of a new season. He kept moving right along, using short irons from fairway and thick rough to get it close enough to make some putts, then finishing on the easy par-5 ninth with a 322-yard drive that left him a 7-iron for his second shot, and putt that put him atop the leaderboard.

Poetic justice?

"Too early for that," Walker said. "I just want to keep playing well. You'd love for the fairy-tale ending, but there's a lot of golf left. I feel good, and I hit it well, and I'm putting well. Just keep all that going, and it'll be good."