<
>

Birdies help Choi take two-shot lead at Sony Open

1/12/2008 - Golf K.J. Choi

HONOLULU -- A different week, a different island and a much
different view for K.J. Choi.

Seven days ago, Choi was bringing up the rear in the
Mercedes-Benz Championship, last among 31 winners at Kapalua going
into the weekend. On Friday, he closed with three straight birdies
for a 5-under 65 and a two-shot lead in the Sony Open.

"I knew that I was going to play better than last week, but I
didn't really think about being in the lead or anything," Choi
said.

The hottest topic -- and one that left some players hot under the
collar -- was far down the leaderboard at the cut line. The PGA Tour
has a new policy this year to limit the field size on the weekend,
and it knocked out John Daly, Brandt Snedeker and 16 other players.

"I don't understand the rule. I think it's crazy," Daly told
Golf Channel. "It's a stupid rule, I'm sorry."

Daly and those who finished at even-par 140 still received
official last-place money of $9,699 and 46 points toward the FedEx
Cup.

But they won't have a tee time on Saturday.

The policy allows for the top 70 professionals and ties, as
always, but if that number exceeds 78 players, then the closest
number of players to 70 advance to the final two rounds. Sixty-nine
players finished at 1-under 139.

Tadd Fujikawa didn't factor into either of those scenarios.
Scrambling to make the cut for the first time in nine professional
starts, he took double bogey on his 15th hole, shot a 70 and missed
the cut by four shots.

"I gave it a good run," Fujikawa said, who returns to the 11th
grade on Monday.

Choi was at 11-under 129 and had a two-shot lead over Kevin Na,
who shot 64 and was the only player to make a move in the
afternoon.

After seeing Choi's score when he teed off, Na was determined to
get in the final group with him. Then he hooked his opening tee
shot into the trees, and his next tee shot in the bunker,
scrambling for par both times.

"I settled down after that," he said, laughing.

Stephen Marino was atop the leaderboard for most of the morning
until his momentum stalled with a bogey on the easiest hole,
although he recovered for a 67 and was three shots behind.

Fred Funk, aided by a tip from his wife, finished birdie-eagle
for a 64 to give the 51-year-old a decent chance before leaving the
kids to play on the Champions Tour in Hawaii the next two weeks. He
was at 7-under 133 with Jimmy Walker (68).

Choi is off to his best start ever at Waialae, where the second
round has derailed him in the past. He was only 1 under for his
round with five holes remaining until making four birdies, the last
one a two-putt on the par-5 ninth from some 25 feet.

That made him 25 shots better than his 36-hole start at Kapalua.

"After the third round (last week), I really found my rhythm
coming back," Choi said. "My putting was getting better, and I
was actually motivated."

Fujikawa, who turned 17 this week, last year became the youngest
player in 50 years to make the cut on the PGA Tour when he shot 66
in the second round at the Sony Open and wound up in a tie for
20th. That was the impetus of him turning pro last summer, but it
has been a struggle since then. He has played five tours around the
world, but still hasn't earned a check.

"I pretty much knew it was gone when I doubled (No.) 6," he
said. "The two double bogeys I made this week was because of two
mental errors. If I didn't have those two errors, I would have had
a good chance to make the cut, and I think my momentum would have
been a little better."

Fujikawa knew where he stood on the cut line.

Most players were unaware of the new cut policy, and some didn't
find out until they went to sign their cards. Snedeker finished at
140 and was told the playing cut was 1 under. He didn't know what
that meant, and didn't like it when he found out.

He immediately called tour officials in Florida to get an
answer.

"I don't really agree," he said. "There are definitely other
options. Saturday they could cut to 60 and ties."

The concern is a player who could make a move on the weekend and
finish in the top 10, or even win, as Brad Faxon, Chris Couch and
Jose Maria Olazabal have done before. And money matters this year,
especially with Americans trying to make the Ryder Cup team.

Choi, Na and Marino didn't need to worry about that.

Marino is coming off a respectable rookie season in which he was
70th in the final FedEx Cup standings, only lacking a victory. But
it taught him he belonged in the big leagues, and he set out to
prove it anew at the Sony Open.

He holed a couple of birdie putts from 20 feet, hit a few irons
close enough not to worry and was atop the leaderboard coming to
the par-5 ninth, the easiest scoring hole on the course. But he
found a bunker, with the ball on a slope, and just got it out into
tricky rough. His chip ran 8 feet by the hole, and Marino took
bogey that felt much worse.

"That kind of halted me a little bit, to make bogey on that
hole," he said. "But I made a couple of long birdie putts
earlier, and it all evens itself out in the end."

He only made one birdie the rest of the way, on the par-5 18th.

Funk was struggling with his iron play until wife Sharon gave
him some advice he could visualize. She told him to keep his back
to the target as long as he could, and it made perfect sense to Funk.
His irons were clean, crisp and close, even if it took him a while
to make a putt. Once he got that going, Funk hated to see the round
end. He shot 30 on the back, reaching the green in two at No. 9 and
making the eagle.

"Pretty good for an old guy," he said.