Choi makes long-awaited return at ISPS HANDA New Zealand Open
Queenstown, New Zealand, February 28: Korea’s K.J. Choi returns to New Zealand for the first time in 23 years, ready to show how far he has come when he steps up to the tee at the ISPS HANDA New Zealand Open which starts on Thursday.
Choi first visited New Zealand as an aspiring 24-year-old professional attending a golf winter training camp in the country then. Almost two decades later, the 47-year-old, who once reached a career high of fifth place on the Official World Golf Ranking in 2008, is arguably one of highest profile players to compete at Millbrook Resort & the Hills this week.
The Korean acknowledged the expectations of the fans and is looking forward to putting up a performance befitting of his reputation as one of the most successful golfers to come out of Asia: “This is my first time playing the New Zealand Open and it has been absolutely wonderful since the first day. The people could not have been more amazing and hospitable to me. I’m sure there will be lots of fans out there and I’m really looking forward to meeting them.”
“I first came here in 1995 for winter training and I remembered playing on several tree-lined courses. The trees were very thick and it was pretty difficult to avoid those trees. But I told myself if I train really hard here and do well, I can go far in my game when I get back on Tour. I had first turned professional at that time and I really pushed myself very hard. Those memories have continued to stay with me even until today. I wanted to get my career started at that time and whenever I look at the local golfers here now, they remind me of how far I’ve come. While a lot has changed, my work ethics continue to remain the same.”
Defending champion Michael Hendry also makes his return to familiar winning ground having made history by becoming the first New Zealander in 14 years to win his National open last year.
While he only has one top-10 finish to show for this year, Hendry believes he will have the form to contend at the highest level when the tournament tees off tomorrow: “My form hasn’t been great but I feel I have played better than my results. I have been working particularly hard and was happy with how I played today. Confidence levels and expectations are always changing but it takes a certain amount of pressure off.”
“I don’t have to prove anything to anyone that I can win it because I’ve done it. That said I would love anything in the world to win it again and I have done pretty well defending golf tournaments. It’s amazing even when you haven’t been playing your best what good memories and confident thoughts can do when you come to venues you have played well at before. If you know deep down that you are good enough on your day that counts for a huge amount.”
Thailand’s Pannakorn Uthaipas, who topped the Asian Development Tour (ADT) Order of Merit in 2017, is excited with his first start at the ISPS HANDA New Zealand Open after a fantastic ADT season on the Tour’s secondary circuit which has presented him with numerous playing opportunities this year.
“I think my mental game is stronger now. I told myself to keep things simple and not overthink on the course. Playing on the ADT has given me a lot of experiences and I was able to hone my skills. It’s very exciting and this place is simply beautiful. I’ve been practising a lot before I came here as I’m the ADT Order of Merit champion and I’ve to show that. Hopefully, I can play well this week and have something to show for,” said Uthaipas.
Did you know?
- K.J. Choi grew up in a farming family on the island of Wando, off the southern coast of Korea and was a powerlifter at his local high school.
- In his early golfing years, Choi would take a two-hour bus ride at 5 am each morning to the golf course where he would practice until dark and then return home.
- Choi’s first professional win came two years after he turned professional when he won the Korean Open in 1996.
- Choi became the first Korean to earn a PGA Tour card in 2000 and went on to record eight wins there including the Players Championship in 2011.
- He credits Jack Nicklaus for playing an influential role in his career. He said reading Nicklaus’ book, “Golf My Way” book early in his golf career assisted him in becoming the golfer he is today.
- He founded the K.J. Choi Foundation in 2007 with the mission of helping Korean children and communities, but his reach has extended to global aid for hurricane and tsunami victims today.
- Michael Hendry became the first New Zealander in 14 years to win their National Open title last year.
- He also enjoyed seven top-10s in Japan and finished 17th on the Japan Tour Order of Merit in 2017.
- Pannakorn had a year to remember in 2017 where he notched one victory and four top-10s to clinch the ADT Order of Merit.
- In doing so, he became the second Thai after Pavit Tangkamolprasert in 2014, to win the accolade.