FARM BOYWando Island, South Jeolla
To understand what truly drives a man, experts say you should study where he grew up. For the golfer Choi Kyoung-ju, the only Korean to win on the PGA Tour, you might expect his hometown to be filled with breathtaking golf resorts and slick professionals offering to rebuild your swing for $300 an hour.
But if you visit this small island at the tip of Korea’s southwest coast, you’ll be about as far from a links paradise as you can get.
Wando is connected to the mainland by the Yeoyuk Bridge. More than 80 percent of the island’s 67,000 people work in the local fishing industry. Most of the others farm for a living. Hitting golf balls has never been a way of life here.
Though it has some beaches and is a jumping off point for many tiny islands in the region, Wando is not a top vacation spot. This is a blue-collar island. Rice paddies are everywhere. And If you don’t farm rice, you fish for anchovy and seaweed.
The biggest community on the island is Wandoeup, home for half the island’s residents. The city stretches along the southern coastline, where many fishing boats sit at the ready. Traveling from one end of the city to the other by taxi (about 80 are operating) costs 1,800 won or $1.40.
Out of this sleepy place that is without canopied carts and two-toned shoes came Choi Kyung-ju, who was born on Wando in 1970 and spent his formative years here. Next week he will play in the Masters, golf’s most prestigious tournament.
For a farm boy, he’s come a long, long way.
Before Choi Kyoung-ju picked up a golf club he was a student at Susan High School on Wando, an institution that prepares young men for a life of fishing or farming.
It was a mild-mannered man named Chu Gang-rae, 51, who taught Choi the game of golf, and who continues to work on Wando.
“Golf catapulted Choi to stardom and surely changed his life forever,” says Chu. “If not for golf, he would be out on the sea right now or working the fields with his father.”
Chu had learned the game from a friend, but with no golf courses on Wando, he worked as a public officer for the Wando County Education Office. In 1986, he he opened a small driving range here, on the outskirts of the biggest city. His plan was to teach youngsters the game. A physical education teacher at Susan High School recommended Choi. Chu then picked three other students as well and started to teach the group a sport they never had heard of before March 1987. For a year Chu showed Choi and the other teens the fundamentals of the game. In 1988, Choi had improved so much that he transferred to Hanseo High School in Seoul -- to concentrate on golf.
His progress was slow but steady. In August 1993, on his first attempt, Choi became a member of the Korea Professional Golf Association. Since then Choi has won eight domestic titles, his first win coming in 1995 at the Fantom Open. Next he collected two wins in Japan. He finally qualified for the PGA tour in 2000, and last year he won both the Compaq Classic in New Orleans and the Tampa Bay Classic in Florida.
Through his sudden burst of fame, Choi has never forgotten his humble roots.
“Whenever time permits from appearances on the PGA Tour, he comes down here, brings me a full bag of clubs and asks me to give them to anyone who is in need,” says Chu. “He has not forgotten where he came from.”
And the island has not forgotten Choi. A good portion of Wando will be tuning their television sets to the Masters, beginning Thursday in Georgia. In fact, Chu and a couple of other locals will be cheering Choi in person at the Augusta National Golf Club, site of the famed event.
Choi will be among 15 other first-time invitees at the 72-hole tournament that dates to 1934.
Choi, also known as “KJ” on the PGA Tour, and “Tank” in Korea for his strapping physique, finished at No. 41 in the official world golf rankings last year, meeting one of the qualifications for a Masters’ invitation. Capturing at least one PGA tournament also earns a golfer a berth.
When Choi first showed up at Chu’s driving range, the place was horribly primitive. The range, which Chu operated alone, was nothing more than a dirt field on which a makeshift net stood at one end and a couple of rubber mats at the other. Not a blade of grass was visible on the 70-meter-long (77 yard) range.
As rough as things were back then, Chu is proud to have had a place in Choi’s development.
“You see how he grips the club?” says Chu. “That overlapping grip came from me.”
Chu also was a factor in Choi’s strength and stamina. The golf teacher made his group of young players walk in a squatting position along the road leading to the range, which at the time was a rocky slope.
“Even back then he was strong. When the other boys couldn’t move an inch more forward, he would push them from behind and make them go.”
Chu remembers how Choi, not having any regulation weights to lift, used a heavy iron bar picked up from a construction site. Choi, who was once a member of the Wando Middle School’s weight lifting team, would hoist the bar 40 to 50 times at a stretch.
“He was like a stubborn mule, you know?” says his old coach. “Whatever I asked him to do, he just did it --until he dropped.”
“The only sort of instructional material that I had to show him was a book written by Jack Nicklaus, which had a lot of illustrations. No Internet, no tournaments on TV, no magazines. Zip.”
Access to anything related to golf was so rare in Wando that no one knew what to make of the sport, including Choi’s family.
Choi’s mother, Suh Sil-rye, 54, remembers the day when her son came to her and announced that he was playing some game called “golf,” a word she had never heard.
“His father asked him whether playing golf would bring in any rice,” she recalls. “I was worried, too. I mean, what did we know about golf? Even now, none of us understands the rules. We just watch him hit balls.”
Chu says that often Choi was summoned from golf practice by his parents who needed him to work the rice fields at home. The young Choi would leave and then return before dark to hit more golf balls. Because his parents did not own a car, on more than one occasion he arrived back at the range on his family’s tractor.
Choi and the others in that group of young golf students had only the range to use for practice. They putted and chipped in the dirt. In time, Chu arranged for some sponsors in Wando to help pay for the youngsters to play two or three times a month at Gwangju Country Club at Gokseong, in South Jeolla province. It took the group four hours by bus to get there. Because they couldn’t afford to eat at the club’s dining room, often Chu’s wife would pack them some gimbap to eat under a tree following a round.
After a few months passed, Choi was the only golfer left in the group of students. Obsessed by the sport, he would wash cars of members of the country club and use the money to play an extra round. Choi’s first 18 holes came after he had only been playing at the club for five months. He shot a 98.
“He made something out of nothing,” says Chu. “I’ll bet you that he thanks God for letting him play every time he steps on a course. His roots will drive him even further, I guarantee you.”
Chu says that Choi’s reputation as someone who never stops practicing on the professional tour is a habit gained from his Wando days. “Kids today smack maybe 1,500 to 2,000 balls a day. Choi would hit 4,000 balls and play 54 holes of golf the same day. It just tells you what kind of guy he is.”
For the people of Wando, Choi is a hero. Hwaheung Elementary School, his alma matter, is within walking distance from the brick house where he grew up and where his parents still live. Not surprisingly, the school’s yearbook for 2003 features in a prominent spot a photograph of the most famous graduate.
“I am really proud,” says Lee Seung-bae, a Wando taxi driver. “After all, he is one of us.”
Many hail Choi for making his mark on the PGA and for winning tournaments in the United States. But his real achievement is surely hailing from a place where golf was nearly unknown. Even today, Wando is still without a single golf course. Chu Gang-rae’s old driving range, long since closed for financial reasons, is today covered with weeds, scrap metal and an apartment building.
Even Choi Kyoung-ju might not recognize it.
by Brian Lee