K.J. Choi threatens to run away from the field in FedEx Cup first Barclays. It's K.J. Choi topping the leaderboard at FedEx Cup's Barclays in New York

HARRISON, N.Y. - K.J. Choi shook his head, as disappointed as the happiest guy on the PGA Tour ever is. Choi felt sure he'd sailed the seventh green at Westchester Country Club, certain he'd overcompensated for hitting a tree on his approach here the day before. Then, Choi noticed the fans around the green jumping up and down.

Hello eagle.

Friday was that kind of day for Choi in the second round of The Barclays, the first of the FedEx Cup playoff tournaments. Even when he thought he made a mistake it turned golden as Choi raced to the top of the leaderboard at 12-under par after shooting a 5-under 66, two shots ahead of Cup surprise Rich Beem and four shots clear of any other golfer in the star-packed field.

Using the $49 putter grip he bought off an infomercial and a high fade that works great against Westchester's old towering trees, the 37-year-old Choi continued his breakthrough season. In the process, Choi - who comes in fifth in the FedEx Cup standings - served noticed that he may be the golfer most able to keep the $10 million retirement fund grand prize away from the absent Tiger Woods.

The golfers actually in New York already sound wary of Choi holding a nice lead.

"I would have liked to have been more under par because when K.J. gets it going, he can really keep it going," said No. 4 Phil Mickelson, who missed several short putts in a 1-under 70 that puts him at 5-under for the tournament, a full seven shots behind Choi.

And players a lot closer than Mickelson are also sweating Choi.

"If K.J. is playing that well, who knows, he might be able to finish 20-under," Geoff Ogilvy said.

After a second round 66, Ogilvy is in a trio at 8-under that includes first-round leader Rory Sabbatini and 40-year-old Steve Stricker. Sabbatini might have had the most disappointing round of the day, following up a 63 with a even-par 71. It left Sabbatini lamenting the "mud balls" on a course that is still drying out from midweek downpours.

Ernie Els could also only manage a 71 thanks to four three putts, leaving him tied with five other golfers at 6-under, including big names like Sergio Garcia (4-under for the round), Retief Goosen (3-under) and Adam Scott (2-under).

"It's definitely not time to give up," Garcia said.

Vijay Singh has no choice but to give up on the weekend. The second ranked player in the Cup standings and three-time Barclays champion missed the cut by three shots, finishing 4-over. Afterwards, Singh sat in the locker room staring straight ahead.

Singh's one of six Top 30 players going home, including last week's rookie winner Brandt Snedeker.

Choi has different concerns. Like whether he wants to endorse the Superstroke Grip putter he bought off an infomercial he saw on the Golf Channel two years ago. Feeling "something was always missing" from his putting, Choi ventured where few pros dare to go - into the world of infomercial claims.

"That's certainly unusual," Beem said. "You don't see a lot of guys using what most people would probably assume is junk off the TV."

Choi resisted using the grip in competition even after he received it and felt like it was working on the practice range. "It did look ridiculously big," Choi laughed. "... I hesitated to take it out to a tournament because of how big it was."

Still, Choi felt the grip was forcing him to use the shoulders and much less wrist when he putted, the elixir his shaky stroke needed. Finally, after 18 months of only using it in practice, he made the decision to break it out for Tiger's new tournament, the AT&T National.

Four days later, Choi stood on the 18th green receiving the winner's trophy from Woods.

Soon after, the Superstroke Grip people started calling, asking Choi to be their endorser. In his typical, cautious fashion, Choi said he'd have to think about it. After needing only 27 putts per round through two rounds at The Barclays, Choi is still thinking.

Which doesn't surprise his peers who know the guy who's vowed to guarantee a significant portion of any Cup event winnings to charity is anything but only about the money.

"You have to understand K.J. is a phenomenal guy," Beem said. "He's probably one of the nicest guys on Tour. I compare him to Nick Price. You see him, he's always smiling. He always comes up and shakes your hand, 'How you doing? How you doing my good friend, good to see you.'"

Choi might call everyone his friend on Tour. He might call that eagle on seven, "a very solid shot" in the most unassuming manner. But the guy who admits his swing always used to be too fast before this season is now in a hurry to get his third win of the year.

If it happens, only Woods, with five Ws, would have more.

"There's so many big-name better players out here," Choi said. "So many players here that deserve the attention. I'm just starting every tournament, trying to work my way."

Choi's work has included completely changing his ball position to cut down on shots that kept hooking left. The first Korean man to play on the PGA Tour, Choi has taken the long road to the top five.

"There's so much pressure if you bring your family over to the U.S," Choi said. "It costs a lot of money to move everyone. You have to make it. If you don't make it what are you going to do? Go back to Korea and start all over again?"

In his seventh season on Tour, Choi doesn't have to worry about having to go back anymore. This weekend, everyone finds out if Woods has to worry about him in the FedEx Cup.

August 25, 2007

Chris Baldwin keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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