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K.J. Choi is rapidly making a name for himself. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
K.J. Choi is rapidly making a name for himself. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

However you say his name, Choi's now real contender

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K.J. Choi decided to go with his initials after the announcers at the first tee kept mangling his name. Everyone knows his name after two big PGA TOUR victories this year, and he’s playing well enough to become known as a major champion.

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) -- Let's start with the name, which is Kyoung-Ju Choi on the birth certificate. But you can call him K.J.

Heck, Choi came up with that one himself at his very first Open Championship in 1998.

"At the first tee, they announce, 'Kung Choy,"' he recalled. "It's a very difficult name. My idea the next day is, 'Kyoung-Ju is very long. Who is that?' And I think of the 'K' initial and the 'J' initial. Everybody understands K.J.-- it's a very simple name -- and Choi. So the next day, it's K.J. Choi from Korea. So easy."

Well, if this keeps up, he might answer to another moniker: Major champion.

Choi arrived at Carnoustie on quite a roll, having won a couple of golf tournaments hosted by two pretty big names in this sport: Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods. And he's carried it right through to another Open Championship, where they no longer have any trouble with his name.

It's K.J. Choi, and he'll be teeing off in the final group of a major on the weekend.

The 36-year-old South Korean broke par for the second round in a row Friday, shooting a 2-under 69 that left him just two strokes behind leader Sergio Garcia. For a guy who grew up on an island that didn't have a golf course, who didn't touch a club until he was 16, who thought he was too small (5-foot-8) to make a go of it, this is quite an accomplishment.

At times, Choi still seems a bit overwhelmed by it all.

"I didn't think I'd be in this spot going into the weekend," he acknowledged, shortly after salvaging a bogey at the brutal 18th hole.

Then again, Choi sure looks meant for this moment when he's out on the course. He plays with calm assurance, rarely showing any emotion, just working his way around the course in a businesslike fashion. Everything about this guy is steady, steady, steady -- his tee shots, his iron play, his putting.

There were a couple of slip-ups in the second round, such as a three-putt bogey from 20 feet at the eighth hole. But even his mistakes seemed to work out OK, such as the tee shot at 18 that rolled to a stop just a foot or two shy of the Barry Burn. He managed to get a foothold at the treacherous edge of the stream, punched out with a 7-iron and gladly settled for a two-putt bogey at the intimidating, 499-yard hole.

"You've got to play that hole as a par 5," Choi said through a translator. "Even if you get a bogey, just consider it a good par."

This is a return trip to Carnoustie, where Choi survived four daunting rounds at the 1999 Open. Back then, the weather and the setup brought the world's best golfers to their knees. Choi made it to the weekend, but struggled through an 81 in the third round and finished in a tie for 49th with a 20-over total.

Although he became an afterthought in that tournament, he did have a beneficial pairing with eventual winner Paul Lawrie, a Scot who knows a thing or two about getting around a links course in the homeland of golf. Despite the language barrier, Choi soaked up plenty of lessons that are coming in handy eight years later.

"Back in 1999, my shots were very weak in the wind," Choi said. "When I played with Paul, I actually learned a lot. I saw how Paul used the ball, used the wind to work for him. It was a good lesson for me. Coming into this week, I knew how to use the wind to my advantage."

Choi should have plenty of strength, having started his athletic career as a weightlifter. To him, it seemed a more logical path than golf, but that outlook changed when he saw Ian Woosnam -- all 5 feet, 4 1/2 inches of him -- win the Masters in 1991.

By 1994, Choi was playing professionally on the Korean Tour. After traveling to South Carolina to represent his country in the World Cup, his focus shifted to earning a spot on the PGA TOUR. He spent a couple of years bouncing around in Europe and Asia, building up his confidence for a shot at the ultimate goal. He earned his card at q-school in 1999, and he's been part of the TOUR ever since.

Choi entered this year with four career triumphs and more than $11.5 million in earnings, but he lacked that signature victory. He has come out on top in New Orleans and Greensboro and twice in Tampa, but those will never be mistaken for Augusta or St. Andrews.

Then came the Memorial, where Choi accepted the top prize from Nicklaus. Over the Fourth of July holiday, the Korean won again at Woods' new invitational tournament near Washington.

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Those were a step up, but they still weren't majors. That's next on the agenda for Choi, who relishes the idea of becoming the first Asian male to win one of golf's premier events -- especially since his country is known mostly for its success on the women's tour.

He's not sure how the weekend will turn out, but he doesn't feel out of place. Not anymore.

"Now," his translator said, "it's a lot different because I have more shots in my bag. I have a lot of shots that are working for me, so I think that may prove to be the difference this year."

Copyright 2007 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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