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Choi overcomes stiff wind for 3-shot margin over Sabbatini

1/14/2008 - Golf K.J. Choi

HONOLULU -- Every shot brought a tough decision. Every swing
brought an unpredictable result.

K.J. Choi never imagined having to work so hard in paradise,
even with a four-shot lead in the Sony Open. When he finally calmed
his nerves and his putting stroke, however, he wound up as the
champion everyone expected.

Choi survived the blustery conditions at Waialae and a spirited
charge by Rory Sabbatini, closing with a 1-over 71 for a three-shot
victory Sunday that put him in elite company. It was Choi's fourth
straight year with a PGA Tour victory, joining Tiger Woods,
Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh with active streaks that long.

"I can't remember having such a difficult round as today,''
said Choi, the first Sony Open champion in 41 years with a final
round over par. "It was very difficult conditions out there. I
told myself, 'Try not to lose focus.' "

More importantly, he never lost the lead.

Choi wobbled in the wind, and when he three-putted the 13th for
bogey -- his only three-putt of the week -- his lead was down to two
shots. But the 37-year-old South Korean made pars the rest of the
way, making his only birdie of the final round on the last hole.

"When I made that three-putt, that really woke me up,'' he
said. "It was kind of like medicine. It woke me up and I said, 'I
have to hang in there, not fall apart.' It motivated me.''

The wind was strong enough to cause palm trees to sway and make
birdies scarce. Sabbatini managed six birdies, but a three-putt par
on the final hole gave him a 68. He was a runner-up in Hawaii for
the third time, two at this tournament.

"There were two things that needed to happen today -- K.J. to
lose a few shots back to the field, and for someone to go low,''
Sabbatini said. "He kind of did his part, but the ones of us that
were chasing, unfortunately, failed to do our jobs and go low
enough to maybe change the outcomes.''

Only eight players broke par in the final round, when the
average score was 72.2.

Choi finished at 14-under 266 and earned $954,000 for his
seventh PGA Tour win.

Jerry Kelly closed with a bogey-free 67 to finish alone in
third.

The last Sony Open champion to close with a round over par was
Dudley Wysong, who beat Billy Casper in a playoff in 1967.
Conditions had been mostly calm all week, but the wind gusted
across Waialae all day, and only eight players broke par.

"Being lulled to sleep for three days made it tougher,'' Kelly
said. "If we would have been facing this all week, we might have
seen more rounds like that. I'll tell you, I'd hate to be a rookie
and just all of a sudden see this place Sunday.''

One such rookie was Tim Wilkinson, the 29-year-old from New
Zealand playing in only his third PGA Tour event, and starting off
in the final group with Choi after a third-round 62. Wilkinson
started off with a bogey and it went badly from there. He shot 78
to tie for 25th.

Choi only had two birdie putts inside 15 feet in the final
round, both on the par 5s. He missed a 3½-footer on No. 9 that gave
the field hope, and made the last one that only determined the
margin of victory. He became the first outright wire-to-wire winner
at the Sony Open since Paul Azinger in 2000.

Steve Stricker birdied the last hole for a 70 and finished in a
tie for fourth with Steve Marino (72), Pat Perez (70) and Kevin Na, who made eagle on the final hole for a 72. Stricker started his
year with consecutive top fives.

Sabbatini can't complain about his start, either.

"All things considered, I'm really looking forward to the rest
of the season,'' he said.

Sabbatini knew he would need help from Choi, and the South
Korean nearly obliged except for a putter that bailed him out
early.

Choi made 12-foot par putts on the first two holes, and made an
8-foot putt to escape with bogey on No. 4. Fortunately for him, no
one was making a run.

Sabbatini's bid was slowed when his 2-iron off the tee at No. 8
struck a tree and dropped into a hazard, leading to double bogey.
That put him put him six shots behind, but he kept plugging away,
trying to keep it close, hopeful of Choi making a mistake.

It was a little of both.

Sabbatini bounced back with two birdies on the next three holes,
and he was back in the picture for good when his 35-foot birdie on
the 13th dropped into the cup.

That's where Choi added some drama into the final round. It
looked like he would finish the 13th with another two-putt par
until he missed from 3 feet -- his first three-putt of the
tournament. Sabbatini dropped another shot on the 15th, but showed
no quit with a brilliant approach to a front pin on the 16th to 4
feet.

His hopes ended with a shot into the sun that he never saw, the
ball landing at the back end of the green some 65 feet away for
eagle. Sabbatini left it 8 feet short and missed that to the right.

Kelly had a remarkable bogey-free round, and the consolation was
a third-place finish. Kelly came into the week at No. 64 in the
world ranking, and he will move into the mid-50s with only four
weeks before the deadline to qualify for the Accenture Match Play
Championship.

"I'm aware of that, but I'm not worried about it,'' Kelly said.
"I've always paid too much attention to everything. I'm trying to
get away from the future and the past, because I've handled both of
them poorly.''