Choi's joy at slice of Augusta history

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The Independent Online

Justin Rose, who stood in splendid isolation at the top of the leaderboard after a trail-blazing 67 in the first round of the 68th Masters, was overtaken yesterday, albeit temporarily, not by a hidden Tiger Woods but a crouching dragon.

Justin Rose, who stood in splendid isolation at the top of the leaderboard after a trail-blazing 67 in the first round of the 68th Masters, was overtaken yesterday, albeit temporarily, not by a hidden Tiger Woods but a crouching dragon.

As Rose was forced to settle for par over the opening holes, Choi Kyoung-Ju, more popularly addressed in America as KJ Choi, posted a brilliant score of 30 on the front nine to tie the Augusta National record and advance from one under to seven under at the turn. Choi, the son of a rice farmer, birdied second, third, fifth, seventh, eighth and ninth to move to the top of the leaderboard. It was, of course, too good to last and his incredible journey was interrupted by pitfalls over the back nine.

Rose, from Hampshire who is playing in only his second Masters, could not repeat his dazzling exploits of the first round which he began with birdies on the first two holes. Yesterday he started with four successive pars before picking up his first birdie of the day at the fifth to move to six under par for the tournament. Chris Di Marco, one of Rose's playing partners, also remained on the leader board, advancing to four under with a birdie two at the sixth hole. A par three of 180 yards, the sixth has been positively plundered by Di Marco.

In the first round Choi had a hole in one with a five iron, a stroke of fortune which the little South Korean seems determined to exploit.

Choi, who was born on the island of Wando, off the coast of Korea, never saw a golf club until he was 16. His principal hobby was weightlifting and at 5ft 8in he considered himself too small to be a success at golf.

However, when he saw the Welshman Ian Woosnam, who is even shorter, win the Masters, Choi became inspired. He turned professional in 1994 and finished first on the order of merit in Korea in 1997. That achievement opened a few doors and after flirtations with the Korean, Japanese, European and Asian tours he decided to try his hand in America. In 1999 he finished tied for 35th in the qualifying school and after securing his card for the US tour bought a house in the Woodlands, near Houston in Texas.

Choi, like Rose, made his debut in the Masters last year when he finished joint 15th.

No sooner had he taken the lead here than he squandered it, his driving accuracy deserting him. He dropped shots at the 10th, the 11th and the 12th, to drop from seven under to four under, at which point he was two strokes behind Rose.

Alexander Cejka, a Czechoslovakian who took German nationality in 1980, also appeared on the leaderboard when he went to the turn in 34. Cejka, who has had four victories on the European Tour, resumed at two under par and got to five under by the sixth hole but then dropped a couple of shots as the speed of the greens, after they had been subjected to all the vagaries of the weather on Thursday, began to confuse many of the players.

The Englishman Paul Casey, making his debut in the tournament, was also putting together an impressive round. Casey, who was born in Cheltenham and lives in Weybridge in Surrey, started the day at three over par, dropped to four over by the fourth but then dramatically improved his score with birdies at the eighth, 9th, 11th, 12th and 15th.

For the seventh successive year the spring classic was disrupted by rain and thunderstorms. Twelve months ago the first round was washed out and they had to play 54 holes in two days. All the golfers, including Rose, who teed off before 11am on Thursday were able to finish their rounds, thunder causing a two hour delay in the afternoon.

Fifteen groups returned to the course in the early evening but only nine finished leaving Woods and company in limbo. Yesterday morning Tiger went from the practice range to the course, recording a solitary birdie at the par-five 15th and he had to scramble like mad to salvage par on the 17th and 18th. He came in with a 75, three over par and eight shots behind Rose. Woods just had time for a spot of breakfast and another visit to the practice range before starting his second round. He had a lot of ground to make up. At the halfway stage in his second round he had made only minor repairs, standing at two-over par for the tournament. At that point the three times Masters champion was probably more concerned with making the halfway cut than winning the tournament.

Vijay Singh, the Fijian who won the Green Jacket here in 2000, was one of several players who saw their progress ambushed by the par five fifteenth. Singh was two-under par in the first round but had a disaster at 15 where he hit his approach shot into the creek in front of the green. After taking a penalty drop he chipped over the back of the green and finally staggered off with a triple-bogey eight at a hole where he was looking for a four.

Mike Weir came to grief at the 13th where he had a double bogey seven which contributed to an ugly round of 79, the worst opening round for a defending champion in Masters history,