CINDY ELLEN RUSSELL / CRUSSELL@STARBULLETIN.COM
K.J. Choi will become the third wire-to-wire Sony Open in Hawaii winner since 1999 if he captures this year's title.
Choi chasing down Sony Open title
The final day of the $5.3 million Sony Open in Hawaii could hold all the drama of a summer rerun, at least K.J. Choi hopes so.
Holding a four-shot lead entering today's last round over little-known New Zealander Tim Wilkinson, there are few golfers you'd want more than Choi as your frontrunner. Despite a couple of hiccups along the way yesterday, Choi fired a solid 66 to move to 15-under 195 for the tournament.
Wilkinson came out of nowhere to shoot an 8-under 62 to sit alone in second at 11-under 199, with Steve Marino (68) and Kevin Na (69) tied for third at 10-under 200. The leaderboard gets jammed up after that, with four golfers, including Chad Campbell (66) and Rory Sabbatini (66), tied for fifth at 9-under 201, and another five tied for ninth at 8-under 202 led by J.B. Holmes (64) and Steve Stricker (66).
Blame all the good scores on the benign weather that left the par-70 Waialae Country Club course defenseless this week against the world's best. There were 39 golfers who shot 1 under or better yesterday, leaving 13 within seven shots of the lead. But with that said, all eyes will be on Choi.
He will try to become the third wire-to-wire winner since this event became the Sony Open in 1999.
The other two who managed that feat were Paul Azinger (2000) and Brad Faxon (2001). John Huston was also a wire-to-wire champion at the United Airlines Hawaiian Open when Waialae was still a par-72 layout in 1998.
Given Choi's recent past, you might as well give him the trophy and the first-place check now, then see which man can finish second. Any one of a dozen golfers will battle for that prize should Choi win for the fifth time in five tries after holding a 54-hole lead.
Not that he believes this is a done deal, not by a long shot. But the South Korean-born golfer, who now resides in Texas, is confident the local fans and 11 friends who flew in from Wando, South Korea, yesterday morning, will keep him on an even keel.
"The fan base here is really increasing every year, especially since last year," Choi said. "I finished fourth here, and winning those two tournaments at the Memorial and AT&T International, that really increased the fan base. I felt a lot of support. It's things like that that really make me happy."
That, and shooting 17 birdies and only two bogeys since teeing it up on Thursday. Those kind of numbers would put anybody in a good mood. He is tied for sixth in fairways hit (66.7 percent), tied for fifth in greens in regulation (79.7 percent) and tied for 17th in putting, averaging 28 a round.
Those kind of numbers will carry you to the top of most leaderboards. And once there, Choi doesn't fall off of them.
"I felt like my driver was working today," Choi said. "It felt good. I started out with (two) birdies (at two of the more difficult holes), and felt like I was going to have a very good day. But during the middle of the round I faced a lot of difficult pin positions, so it made it a little bit difficult, but I think my putting was there to hold up the round real nicely."
You won't get any argument from those trying to track him down. Wilkinson shot near the top of the leaderboard with his 62 earlier in the day. He quickly moved into second place and was never threatened by the pack of golfers trying to catch him. Most wondered just who this rookie was and where he came from.
This is only his third tournament on tour, but they were played as a Monday qualifier in 2003 and 2004. He tied for 14th at the 2007 Q-school and would like to be known outside his hometown of Palmerston North, New Zealand. Those who followed Tadd Fujikawa the first two days know all about him.
"It was fun," Wilkinson said of his opening 36 holes. "He's a nice kid and it was good. He's a really good player, too. He had a lot of pressure on him this week."
As for Wilkinson, he's just trying to figure out how to handle himself being in this position for the first time. He still figured he'd get a good night's rest, despite being in his first final group on tour.
"I'll just read a book before I go to bed, and that puts me to sleep," Wilkinson said. "I always sleep pretty well. My caddie thinks I'm dead the way I sleep."