Choi keeps up stellar play |

Choi keeps up stellar play

HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – K.J. Choi kept up his stellar golf, even without Tiger Woods in his group.

Choi played with the world’s No. 1 golfer all four rounds of last week’s Masters but showed no signs of a hangover on Thursday, when he shot a 7-under 64 to take a two-stroke lead at the Verizon Heritage.

Mike Weir and Greg Owen were next at 66, then came a large group at 67 that included Jim Furyk, Sergio Garcia and five-time Verizon winner Davis Love III.

Choi tied Woods for fourth at Augusta National, finishing five shots behind champion Phil Mickelson.

Most of golf’s best, including Mickelson and Woods, are resting after last week’s major.

Not Choi, who wasn’t ready to end a roll that includes second- and fourth-place finishes over his past three tournaments.

“Yeah, the aura, the atmosphere is a little different” than last week, a grinning Choi said through his interpreter and manager, Michael Yin. “But when you step on the tee box in the first hole, you still get that competitive pressure.”

No one competed better at Harbour Town than Choi.

He used a stretch of three birdies over four holes on the front nine to take the lead, then had a similar run on the back to separate from a crowded pack and finish with his lowest score this season. Choi rolled in a 30-footer for birdie on the 13th to catch Jerry Kelly and Love. He closed his charge by putting his approach to 2 feet on the 16th for a birdie.

Choi, who turns 40 next month, said he reveled in every Masters moment with Woods last week and it helped him improve his patience and focus.

“I think that is only going to help me more, and I’m thankful for the experience I had with Tiger,” he said.

It was Choi’s best-ever showing at Harbour Town. Then again, he’d only played here once before, missing the cut in 2001.

Most years, the native of South Korea is at his home in Texas recuperating after the Masters’ grind. This time, Choi feels so good about his game – his 69.25 scoring average is second to Anthony Kim – he didn’t want to take a break.

“I’ve been playing good and I guess I wanted to keep the rhythm going,” he said. “And now that I’m here and I see the reactions of the gallery, the sponsors, I feel a lot of support here.”

Weir discovered that, too. The 2003 Masters champion had only played the Heritage in 1999, the last year he hadn’t qualified for Augusta. But Weir is missing events this summer because of family celebrations – he and wife Bricia’s 40th birthdays; his brother’s 50th; and his parents’ 50th wedding anniversary – and needed earlier tournaments.

“I forgot how narrow (Harbour Town) is, how tight some of the pin positions are, and how precise you have to be on a certain number of shots,” he said. “So that usually suits my game.”

Weir had an eagle on the par-4 first hole, converting an 8-iron from 144 yards away. He moved within a shot of Choi with consecutive birdies on the fourth and fifth holes before a bogey on the seventh – Weir began his round on the 10th hole – dropped him to two back.

Owen has missed five cuts this season and withdrew from his last event, the Houston Open. Still, he shot his lowest round in more than two months.

Love always seems to be on top of the leaderboard here. Besides those five victories, he’s the event’s career money winner with more than $2.6 million and has had 44 rounds in the 60s since his first teed it up here in 1986.

The day’s deja vu moment belonged to Kelly, who aced the par-3 fourth hole for the second time here since 2007.

“Same club, too,” Kelly said of his 4-iron.

He becomes just the third PGA Tour pro since 1983 – Joe Ozaki and Craig Stadler are the others – to ace the same hole twice in tournament play.

Divots: Woody Austin showed off his personality on the back nine. He bounced the golf ball off his head following a 12th-hole bogey, slapped his thigh hard in celebration after a birdie on No. 13 moved him into the lead, then berated himself as he left the par-3 14th with a double-bogey 5. … Two-time Verizon champion Stewart Cink is in the second week of his “Twee Off” challenge to raise funds for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. Cink opened with a 71. … Weir said a big reason he returned after 11 years was to support the tournament, which is losing longtime sponsor Verizon after this year. “I know it’s important to play this event because it’s been a stalwart to the tour,” he said.

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