At 50, former golf star hasn’t given up his driveA long time ago, a JoongAng Ilbo sports page headline read, “The era of Choi Sang-ho has arrived. Twenty-six-year-old Choi tops the prize money ranking and is sweeping the Korean golf scene.”
The story was published on Sept. 3, 1981. Twenty-four years have passed, but Mr. Choi’s time has not yet ended.
He seemed to be on the verge of retiring in 1996 after winning the Youngnam Open, his 42nd victory, but he has recently made a comeback by winning the KT&G Maekyung Open on May 28 this year.
In an interview at the Nam Seoul Golf Range in Seongnam after his victory, Choi, 50, said, “My goal is to get 50 wins and I feel that I can stay competitive for the next three to four years.”
When Choi was in elementary school, a golf range ― New Korea ― opened in his neighborhood in Goyang, Gyeonggi province. He went to take a look and saw people hitting balls into a hole. He and his friends dug a hole in the ground and started to play using old golf balls and wooden sticks.
“It was something between ‘tipcat’ and playing marbles,” Choi said. “Later, Son Heung-su, a golf pro at the range, said, ‘If you are going to do it, do it right.’ He started giving me instructions.”
That moment marked the start of his golfing career. When he was a junior in middle school, he worked part time at the range, selling the coins needed to buy balls for practice.
“After graduating from Goyang High School, I came to think that golf was going to be my life,” Choi said.
Standing 1.7 meters (5 feet, 6 inches), he is shorter than other players, but his arms are known to be longer than theirs. “A right-handed pitcher usually has a right arm that is longer than his left arm, and likewise I’ve taken many swings,” Choi said. “It is an occupational disease.”
Choi’s friends and colleagues say that he is a workaholic. From the time he was young, he has practiced his swing, using heavy metal pipes, more than 1,000 times a day, they said.
His swing is a bit awkward ― not refined. In addressing the ball, he crouches, then suddenly stands up at the point of impact. If he were an amateur, he would top the ball.
“It is not good form, but it is necessary to hit it far,” Choi said. “Hunching your back more, you distance yourself from the ball further and can have a wider swing.”
Choi can still drive 290 yards, which is not bad for even a young hitter.
In 1981, Choi said in the interview with the JoongAng Ilbo that his biggest goal was to own a house.
Winning the Most Valuable Player award from the Korea Professional Golfers’ Association for five straight years from 1981, he bought an 80-square-meter (861-square-foot) apartment in Hongje-dong in northern Seoul. In 1992, he received a total of 199.5 million won ($199,000), including prize money and incentives, the highest wage for a professional sports star at that time.
Boxing WBA featherweight champion Park Young-gyun made 192.3 million won and was ranked second in earnings, while Haitai Tigers pitcher Sun Dong-yuhl, now the Samsung Lions manager, was No. 3 at 142 million won.
Now, Choi lives in 165-square-meter apartment in Cheongdam-dong in southern Seoul. He signed a five-year, 500-million-won contract with Pajero Golf Co. for sponsorship in 2001.
Choi has two sons, but he does not want them to be professional golfers, noting that they are good students. His eldest son Ji-uk studies life science at Korea University and his second son majors in business administration at Yonsei University. Choi still hopes, however, that they will take up golf as a hobby.
Choi feels sorry for his family since he was absent from home for a long time, taking part in tournaments. One time, he even felt doubtful about his career, thinking, “How long do I need to leave my family behind?”
Choi now hopes to travel with his family if he goes overseas. “I plan to travel with my wife if I start touring the United States,” he said.
In the mid-1980s, Choi tried playing in PGA events in the United States but his driving distance was an obstacle. Last year, without telling anyone, he took part in the Champions Tour for senior golfers, but missed the cut by one shot in a regional qualifying round.
Choi said this year he is more confident about playing in the United States.
Asked for tips for amateur golfers, Choi said, “It is the same for both pro and amateur golfers. When I swing, I ask myself whether my grip and stance are good. Then, I tell myself not to let my head up, and to relax my muscles.”
by Sung Ho-jun