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Choi ready for prime time with story as remarkable as his swing

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PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Hosung Choi climbed the steps to the platform for his news conference Tuesday at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, bowed to assembled media and then struck his famous off-balance fisherman’s pose.

His quirky signature swing got him a laugh before he uttered a word in his first American news conference.

“It is my first time here in the United States, so I can't even put into words how incredibly happy and grateful I am to have this opportunity here,” Choi said through a translator.

Choi couldn’t have picked a better place to introduce himself to American audiences as he prepares to make his PGA Tour debut on a sponsor’s exemption.

With Pebble Beach as much a stage as a golf course with all the celebrities here this week, Choi’s showmanship looks like a perfect fit. The affable South Korean is more than a player with serious game. He is an entertainer with a popular act.

Win, lose or draw, the galleries at Pebble Beach, Spyglass Hill and Monterey Peninsula Country Club are going to love him.

If he plays well, he’ll own the old Crosby Clambake.

Choi’s cartoonish swing is larger than life. His wobbly-legged follow-through makes him look like Wiley E. Coyote stumbling away after being hit by an Acme truck.

Never, Choi says, has he felt pressure to make his swing conform to more classic swings.

“I personally love my swing,” he said.

So do the legion of fans who have made him a YouTube sensation.

Even Tiger Woods is impressed with the eccentricity of Choi’s action.

“It’s quite remarkable,” Woods said. “My back hurts just watching.”

Choi’s swing isn’t all that is larger than life. So is his story.

Tuesday, the 45-year-old late bloomer summed up his rise quite nicely.

“I went to a high school that specialized in jobs for the fishing industry,” Choi said. “When I was 23, I had my thumb cut off in a chain saw accident. You can see my right thumb is shorter than my left.”

Choi lifted his thumb for media to see how it was surgically reattached.

“For about two years, I couldn't do anything,” Choi said. “Then afterwards, I was able to get a part-time job at a golf course, and that's how I started my golfing career.”

Choi was 25 when he got  that part-time golf job doing everything from cleaning the locker room to stocking vending machines.

He was 27 when his boss handed down an edict: “If you were going to work at this course, you need to know how to play. You need to know how players think.”

So Choi taught himself to play, forgoing lessons. He said coaches were too expensive. He learned mostly reading golf magazines, and he learned quickly.

At 29, Choi turned pro.

While there’s a Happy Gilmore appeal to Choi, he isn’t some circus act. He has won four times on the Korean and Japanese tours.

His unusual follow-through came with a swing change in his late 30s. He wanted to be more than an ordinary golfer, and he literally stumbled onto something he liked while hacking a shot out of deep rough.

He says his follow through is all about trying to add distance and put body English on the ball.

“Sometimes it feels like I have a remote control that wills the ball to go into the hole,” Choi said. “So, I’m going to keep doing that, because I feel like it helps.”

Choi’s showmanship appealed to AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am CEO and tournament director Steve John.

“You think about what Bing Crosby started in 1937, and it was about getting together with Hollywood friends and having a good time,” John told the San Francisco Chronicle after offering the sponsor’s invite. “This guy has a good time playing golf. It’s a good fit for our tournament.”

Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers loved the idea so much that he sent a plea out to tournament officials.

“Definitely pair him with me and @jerrykelly13pga,” Rodgers tweeted.

Choi was asked Tuesday if he knows who Rodgers is.

“I know that he is the greatest football player in the U.S., and I'm honored that he said that he wanted to play golf with me,” Choi said.

Rodgers is getting his wish. The football star is playing alongside Choi, Jerry Kelly and actor Chris O'Donnell for the first three rounds.

But not everyone is sold that Choi’s eccentricity warrants a sponsor’s exemption.

“If you watch it up until impact, he’s technically got a pretty good swing,” Rory McIlroy said a couple weeks ago. “He’s obviously a good player. Whether that means he should be taking a spot away from a PGA Tour player at a PGA Tour event, I’m not so sure.”

McIlroy wonders about the theatrical follow-through.

“I’m not sure a golf shot should mean that much to you, that you’re doing that after you hit it,” McIlroy said. “It’s just trying a little too hard.”

Choi said he isn’t overly concerned what other people think about his swing.

“My only goal is to give my all and to play my best when I'm on the golf course,” he said. “So, I don't really think about that very much.”

Given the viral nature of his swing videos, Choi doesn’t have to worry what the galleries will think this week. He already knows. They love his swing as much as he does.