PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — A few dozen spectators and three grazing deer surrounded the first tee at Monterey Peninsula Country Club on Thursday, craning their necks to get a better look at the players beginning the hole. The foursome included Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers quarterback who grew up five hours away in Chico, starred collegiately at California and was trailed all day by cries of “Go Bears” — which he acknowledged by saying, “Go Bears, but not Chicago.”
Rodgers, though, was not his group’s main attraction, and he was fine with that. In fact, he essentially signed up for a supporting role. Last month, he used his Twitter account to petition to play the first three rounds of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am with Choi Ho-sung, the 194th-ranked player in the world who was making his PGA Tour debut on a sponsor’s exemption.
Choi’s swing was known in the United States long before he arrived to Pebble Beach. It has become a viral sensation because Choi, a South Korean native and a regular of the Japan Tour, is a cross between Chi Chi Rodriguez and Fred Astaire.
Choi spins around on his follow-through as if his club is his dance partner. His pre-swing routine is also unique, resembling an oblique muscle stretch; he swivels to his left and his eyes lock on his left shoulder as he holds his club high, as if to light a kerosene street lamp. He pauses at the top long enough to exhale loudly, making a “shoo” sound before settling over his ball.
Jordan Spieth, the three-time major winner and the 2017 champion at Pebble Beach, had seen videos of Choi and was among those eager to see him up close.
“I actually was fascinated, clearly, by his swing, and the way he moves around,” Spieth said, adding, “It’s just really entertaining. I think people are really excited to see him this week.”
Choi, 45, did not take up the game until he was around the same age as the 25-year-old Spieth, but he has developed a showman’s touch. The bigger the crowd, the more he appears to play to it. Upon being introduced to warm applause on the first tee, Choi bowed to the fans on three sides of the tee box before settling into his pre-shot routine.
On a different tee, he took his driver head cover, decorated with studded stars, and pretended to give a back rub to Rodgers and Jerry Kelly, the other pro, by brushing it over their sweaters. Later, the other amateur, the actor Chris O’Donnell, was teasing Rodgers about his mustache, which called to mind Burt Reynolds’s facial hair in the 1970s film Smokey and the Bandit. Rodgers looked at Choi, who was standing nearby, and Choi gave him the thumbs up.
“See,” Rodgers said, “Ho-sung likes it.”
Choi surprised Rodgers with his English abilities, after Rodgers surprised Choi by greeting him in Korean. Kelly introduced himself to Choi on the practice green with an outstretched hand and a wide grin. “We will have so much fun!” he told him.
After the round, Choi broke into a broad smile of his own and said that Kelly had been right.
“I think my pairing was just as good as the weather,” Choi said through an interpreter, referring to the abundant sunshine and negligible breeze, “and I learned a lot from Jerry Kelly.”
Choi knows that he has a lot of catching up to do. He was training for a job in the fishing industry, he said, until he lost the tip of his right thumb in a chain saw accident at 23.
Doctors reattached the tip, and Choi redirected his focus, landing a part-time job at a golf course two years later. It was there that he honed his self-taught swing.
This is his first trip to the United States, he said, and he arrived with loads of enthusiasm but not a single endorsement. His black cap and turquoise sweater both featured the Pebble Beach Golf Links logo, and his caddie carried a new TaylorMade bag that seemed tailor-made for Choi, with a silhouette logo of his follow through, complete with the kick flourish.
Choi said he chose his first-round outfit purposefully. “I wanted to show my appreciation for the tournament for having me out here,” he said, adding, “I’m incredibly grateful, and that’s why I’m wearing the logo.”
The group was led by Jonah Webster, a 16-year-old golfer from Sonora, Calif., roughly 170 miles northeast of Monterey Bay. His grandfather, Steve Lee, who walked alongside him Thursday, said Webster had trembled with excitement when he found out he would be carrying the scoring sign for Rodgers, one of his idols, and Choi, whose swing he had watched on YouTube.
Lee joked that he had told his grandson to close his eyes when Choi took the club away, because his swing was not exactly something that impressionable youngsters should be trying. “It’s fun to pull for a guy who’s so unique,” Lee said.
Outside the ropes, others seemed to share Lee’s sentiment. They cheered for every good shot and great escape orchestrated by Choi, who was four-over after 10 holes but made three birdies in the final eight to salvage a 1-over 72.
“I definitely felt the love from my fans,” Choi said, “and I felt like that pushed me more to focus on the back nine.”
Choi’s struggles notwithstanding, he at least impressed Rodgers. “He’s not a sideshow,” the quarterback said. “He can play, and I think it’s really good for golf.”