Kuchar, Choi unfazed by Tiger frenzy

On the 18th green, near the end of Thursday's long afternoon on the course, with the wind howling and rain that had held off all day now starting to come down a little harder, Tiger Woods missed a short birdie putt, pulling it badly. The huge gallery let out a collective groan and started to head for the gates. Members of the press, gathered in a perch high above the green, made their way down the ladder, heading to Woods' news conference, to hear all he had to say about his 4-under 68. Meanwhile, two ball markers remained on the green.

K.J. Choi and Matt Kuchar, the "other guys" in the day's most-watched group, still had work to do.

Kuchar, who had begun the 18th with a drive into the woods left, calmly holed his 3½-foot putt to save par and finish with a 2-under 70. And Choi, who had come up just short of the green with his approach and pitched to within 3 feet, calmly holed out to finish a very neat 5-under-par 67, leaving him in a five-way tie for second place, only 1 stroke behind surprise leader Fred Couples. Yet no one seemed to care.

Choi and Kuchar did not seem to mind finishing in near solitude after a day inside the ropes with Woods, being followed by a gallery of several thousand curiosity-seekers.

"It was fun to be a part of it," said the ever-smiling Kuchar, who 12 years ago played with Tiger on Thursday and Friday under much different circumstances, when he was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and Woods was defending his 1997 Masters title.

"Obviously, a lot of people came to see Tiger," Kuchar said. "K.J. and I were the bonus players."

For the first nine holes, Kuchar and Woods were dead even at 3 under. The 31-year-old who just cracked the world top 100 for the first time in his career was bogey-free on the front, with birdies on 2, 3 and 8. Choi, who made the turn at 1 under, was brilliant on the back, making four straight birdies on holes 13 through 16.

"A very good day," said Choi, a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, in his ever-improving English. "I enjoyed playing with Tiger, seeing his mental strength, and the crowd showed great respect. They were very quiet when we were preparing to make our shots. They were very respectful."

Indeed, there was nary a heckler in the massive crowd, but the gallery seemed a bit oblivious to the golf that Choi and Kuchar were playing, cheering their birdies with about the same level of enthusiasm it was showing for Woods' pars. If Tiger was done with the hole, even if Choi or Kuchar had birdie putts to attempt, many were scurrying for position at the next hole. Again, Tiger's playing partners did not seem to mind.

In fact, when asked about the two planes carrying messages for Tiger, Kuchar said, "There were planes with banners? I had no idea, and I doubt Tiger did either. We were all focused. We were playing some pretty good golf, and that was all we were thinking about."

Kuchar said he and Choi made small talk with Woods throughout the round. "Honestly, it was like it always is. I didn't know what to expect, but it was all very normal out there."

For both Kuchar and Choi, who finished third in the 2004 Masters for his only top-10 at Augusta, Thursday marked their best-ever rounds at the Masters.

"I got some good luck today," Choi said. "And I hit some shots I don't normally hit because of the wind. On 16, I usually hit a 6-iron, sometimes a 7-iron, and today it was an easy 8-iron. I am very happy with the round."

The 39-year-old former powerlifter now looks forward to another day inside the ropes with Woods. "I liked the atmosphere," he said. "I'll take it again on Friday."

With Woods long gone to the news conference and only a few stragglers left behind at the 18th green, Kuchar finished talking to the press and walked by himself toward the clubhouse, shook hands with a few fans along the way, stopped to speak with his family and pulled a towel out of his bag to clean the dirt and grass off his own golf shoes.

Not that anyone noticed.

Jeff Bradley is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.