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Choi on track for wire-to-wire win at Sony Open

1/13/2008 - Golf K.J. Choi

HONOLULU -- K.J. Choi had a special audience Saturday at the
Sony Open when 11 friends from his hometown in South Korea flew
across the Pacific Ocean overnight to watch him play.

He made it worth the trip with another strong performance to
extend his lead.

Choi opened with a pair of birdies and closed with a birdie from
the bunker, giving him a 4-under 66 and a four-shot lead over
rookie Tim Wilkinson as he tries to become the first outright
wire-to-wire winner at Waialae in eight years.

"I felt a lot of support," Choi said.

Two of the friends were financial backers when he started his
career -- one owns a hospital, the other a restaurant in Wondo,
South Korea. They made plans to come to Oahu two months ago,
although work kept them from arriving until the weekend.

Choi laughed when asked if there was pressure to make the cut.

Now, the pressure is on everyone chasing him.

Choi was at 15-under 195 and had the largest lead at Waialae
since Paul Azinger led by five going into the final round in 2000.
That also was the last wire-to-wire winner without ties in the Sony
Open.

The only threat on a balmy afternoon came from a rookie who
played in the morning.

Wilkinson, a left-hander from New Zealand playing in only his
third PGA Tour event, birdied seven of his first 11 holes and
finished with an 8-under 62 for the best round of the week.

Kevin Na, who started the third round two shots behind, couldn't
keep up with Choi's birdie-birdie start and only a pair of birdies
on the final four holes left him in the mix. Na shot 69 and was at
10-under 210 with Stephen Marino (68).

Another shot back was a group that included Chad Campbell, who
sized up the situation for everyone chasing Choi.

"He's going to be tough," Campbell said. "He hits a lot of
fairways, and that's what you have to do out here."

Choi is 4-0 on the PGA Tour when he has the lead going into the
final round, and his average score is 67 in those situations.

Wilkinson at least has experience with a decent crowd at
Waialae. He played the first two rounds with 17-year-old island
favorite Tadd Fujikawa, who missed the cut. Fujikawa had the
largest gallery the first two days, and while the fans ignored the
newcomer from New Zealand, Wilkinson said it sure beat his last few
years on the Nationwide Tour.

"It's a lot of fun playing in front of people. You hit a good
shot, you actually get applause," Wilkinson said. "On the
Nationwide Tour, you might hit a good shot and you get nothing."

Even so, the gallery Sunday figures to be one-sided.

Choi is popular in these parts, with several fans showing up
Saturday with South Korean flags, and his group of friends dressed
in yellow. He birdied his first two holes from inside 10 feet and
nearly made an ace on the fourth as he quickly expanded his lead.

"I figured I'd lose some ground to K.J.," Marino said. "I
think I can [catch him], but I'll need some help from him."

Campbell is hitting the ball so well that he didn't miss a
fairway, quite a feat at Waialae. He also hit all 18 greens, but
only converted four birdie putts to finish with a 66.

It looked early on that Choi wouldn't leave anyone with a
chance.

He hit his approach to 3 feet on the opening hole for birdie,
made a 10-foot birdie on the next hole, and his tee shot on the
par-3 fourth took a few hops and hit the back of the cup before
spinning 12 feet away. He had to settle for par.

The only player who seriously threatened Choi was already done
for the day. Wilkinson made his final birdie as Choi was heading to
the first tee, and the 11-under 199 stayed on the leaderboard the
entire day.

Wilkinson quietly put together the best round of the tournament,
starting with back-to-back birdies, and it included a bunker shot
he holed on the seventh. He didn't get anyone's attention until two
more birdies to start the back nine, putting him at 7 under for his
round and threatening the course record.

But the birdies dried up until the end, when he hit a good wedge
into 3 feet.

"It didn't come into my mind at all, funnily enough,"
Wilkinson said about a course record [60] or better. "But on 12,
13, 14, I left them right in the middle. So had those gone in, I
probably would have thought about it."

The 29-year-old Kiwi seems unflappable, and he has a history of
that. He started the final round of Q-school on the cut line, then
closed with a 68 to tie for 14th and earn his card for the first
time.

"The night before the final round at Q-school, I slept nine
hours straight," he said. "I wasn't even worried about it. I was
right on the number. And that night, I couldn't sleep that night
after I qualified. It meant a lot."

He'll get plenty of time to sleep in Sunday, and maybe nerves
will set in eventually.

Divots
PGA Tour officials ran into another obstacle Saturday when
Kenneth Ferrie (4 under) had to withdraw with a stomach virus. It's
usually last-place money, but the debate was whether he should get
the same amount as those who made the cut at even par but did not
qualify to play on the weekend because of a cut that exceeded 78
players. ... Stephen Ames shot a 65 that featured only one loose
shot that cost him dearly. His tee shot on No. 11 got stuck in a
palm tree, and he could not identify it. "I asked for a crane, but
they wouldn't give me one," Ames said. He had to go back to the
tee and took double bogey. Ames was at 7-under 203.