News & Opinion

‘Fisherman’ casts for a keeper at Pebble

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Move over, Andrew “Beef” Johnston. Hosung Choi is golf's latest sensation. To recap quickly, Choi, 45, from South Korea, is making his PGA Tour debut this week at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am with one of four unrestricted exemptions.

Choi's unconventional corkscrew swing – dubbed the fisherman's swing – went viral this summer, making him a fan favorite. It prompted a PGA instructor to launch an online petition, which generated more than 5,000 signatures, to get Choi a sponsor’s exemption into the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Alas, the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am beat Phoenix to the punch. When the exemption was announced, none other than Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tweeted that he would like to play with his partner Jerry Kelly in a foursome with Choi in the pro-am, and his wish came true.

"I know that he is the greatest football player in the U.S.," Choi, speaking through an interpreter, said of Rodgers at his pre-tournament news conference, "and I'm honored that he said that he wanted to play golf with me."

Choi is more than just an Internet sensation. He's got game. He has won four times internationally, including the Japan Golf Tour's Casio Open in December, and cracked the top 200 in the Official World Golf Ranking. His back story is equally as entertaining. The son of a fisherman, Choi worked at a tuna factory, where he lost the tip of his right thumb in a freak chainsaw accident while in high school. At 26, he landed a part-time job at an upscale golf club about an hour’s drive south of Seoul, where he did everything from cleaning lockers to stocking and collecting the coins from vending machines.

"On hot summer days, I would be the one responsible for putting the cold ice towels inside the ice boxes for the players," Choi said. "So, I honestly did whatever they needed me to."

Between those duties, he taught himself the game.

"In 1997, they opened up a new practice area for us, and our manager told us that for any employee that works at the golf course, you need to learn how to play golf so that you have the same mindset and know how the golfers feel when you're on the golf course," Choi said. "So, they let us practice there off-hours, and they let all employees have playing privileges."

He grooved his swing through lonely hours of trial and error. A thing of beauty, it is not. Explaining his pirouettes and wild gyrations, Choi said, "I do what I can with what I have."

Seemingly everyone in golf, including major champions Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, have expressed amusement at his one-of-a-kind swing.

But beyond looking like a man casting for supper and his over-the-top body English (or should we call it body Korean?), why should we really care about Hosung Choi fever this week and beyond? Well, he's a reminder that there isn't just one way to swing the club. Isn't that part of the beauty of the game?

Too many swings in professional golf look as if they have been manufactured on an assembly line. Blame it on the advent of video on phones and swing apps. Too many golfers are consumed with maximizing TrackMan numbers. In the pre-video era, golfers went more by feel, which produced homespun, funky swings: Arnold Palmer's whirlybird finish, Jack Nicklaus' chicken wing, Gary Player's walk-though finish. They were unique.

At the PNC Father-Son Challenge in December, I asked Mike Furyk, Jim's dad, why he never changed his son's swing, the one once described as looking like an octopus falling out of a tree.

"It didn't need to be changed," he said. "It's natural. If you chase your pet dog into a corner, he's going to do what comes natural. He's going to bite your ass. When you're on the back nine of a major championship and you're trying to win it, I think the guy with a natural swing wins. You're always going to revert back to what comes natural."

Mike Furyk recalled the time when a college coach came to recruit his son at the Pennsylvania high school championship. Later that night, the coach bumped into the Furyks at a steak restaurant and told Mike that he couldn't wait to get Jim down to his school so that he could change his swing.

"I said, 'Coach, that's just what I needed to hear," Mike Furyk said. "He said, 'Yeah, you know it, too.' I said, 'No, I don't want it ever to be changed, but you just eliminated yourself from the process, and I just want to thank you for doing that."

So many of the great players had "goofy" swings, Furyk said, and he's right. In his day, there was Moe Norman, Lee Trevino, Miller Barber, Calvin Peete and Chi Chi Rodriguez, just to name a few. All were different. Not everyone has to look like Tom Purtzer or Adam Scott or Louis Oosthuizen to succeed in this game.

Choi found something that works for him, and he plays with enthusiasm and freedom. It brings a smile to our face because it's a glimpse of the wonderful possibilities when we ask ourselves: Is there another way?

"I needed to find my own unique way to get extra distance," Choi said. "And by hitting it hard and by swinging hard, I was able to swing the way I do right now, so that might result in how I'm swinging it."

The most beautiful thing about Choi's swing surely is where the ball flies. I asked Fred Shoemaker, the golf instructor and author of Extraordinary Golf: The Art of the Possible, what he thought of Choi's swing, and he said, "What's not to love? When someone comes out and does something radically different, it's shocking. We've been taught it has to look a certain way. But suppose it doesn't? It's like the old saying: Be yourself. Everyone else is taken."

Could the era of the homespun swing make a comeback? In addition to Choi, there's Bryson DeChambeau, who is turning into a world-beater marching to the beat of his own drum. Just last week at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Matthew Wolff, a 19-year-old sophomore at Oklahoma State, showed off his unorthodox move, averaging 325.4 yards off the tee as he tied for 50th in his first PGA Tour start.

"It's something that's kind of homemade," Wolff said. "As soon as I started golfing, I kind of took it upright and with a little hinge in the wrist. And if no one ever filmed my swing, I would have totally just thought it was straight back and straight through. So, to me, it feels fine. And the little hinge, that was, I broke my collarbone sophomore year of high school and I got back and my coach, George [Gankas], told me I was aimed to the right and so I needed to open up my shoulders and my hips. So, from then on, I just started doing that little hitch, and it kind of turned into a trademark and a little trigger to start my swing."

Like Choi, he does it his way, and he's not resigned to the fact that this is his swing. It's not a compromise. It's the best it can be, and the results have been outstanding. As for his histrionics on the putting green, Choi explained that he sometimes feels as if his mind becomes a remote control that can will the ball into the hole.

"I feel like that helps the ball go in the hole,” he said, “so I'm going to keep doing that this week.”

Don't ever change, Choi. Don't ever change.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak