(ERIC RISBERG ~ Associated Press)
By DOUG FERGUSON
The Associated Press
HONOLULU -- K.J. Choi had to work harder than he imagined to become the Sony Open champion everyone expected.
Equipped with a four-shot lead, Choi struggled in blustery conditions Sunday at Waialae Country Club and held off a late charge by Rory Sabbatini to close with a 1-over 71, the first Sony Open champion in 41 years with a final round over par.
That was more a testament to the wind that caused palm trees to sway and made birdies scarce. Sabbatini managed six of them in a spirited run at Choi, but he three-putted the final hole for par from 65 feet for a 68, leaving him three shots behind.
Choi won for the seventh time on the PGA Tour, and for the fourth consecutive season. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh are the only other players with active streaks that long.
But it wasn't easy until the end. Choi didn't make his first birdie until the final hole when the outcome was no longer in doubt. He finished at 14-under 266 and earned $954,000.
Sabbatini started six shots behind, took a double bogey on No. 8, and still managed to make a game of it.
He had six birdies, the final one a sand wedge to 4 feet on the 16th to get within two shots, as Choi was struggling to make par three groups behind him. Choi settled down with a par from just off the 16th green, a chip that caught part of the cup on the 17th, and breathing room when he stepped on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead.
Jerry Kelly closed with a bogey-free 67 to finish alone in third.
The last Sony Open champion to close with a round over par was Dudley Wysong, who beat Billy Casper in a playoff in 1967. Conditions had been mostly calm all week, but the wind gusted across Waialae all day, and only eight players broke par.
"Being lulled to sleep for three days made it tougher," Kelly said. "If we would have been facing this all week, we might have seen more rounds like that. I'll tell you, I'd hate to be a rookie and just all of a sudden see this place Sunday."
One such rookie was Tim Wilkinson, the 29-year-old from New Zealand playing in only his third PGA Tour event, and starting off in the final group with Choi after a third-round 62. Wilkinson started off with a bogey and it went badly from there. He shot 78 to tie for 25th.
Choi only had two birdie putts inside 15 feet in the final round, both on the par 5s. He missed a 3 1/2-footer on No. 9 that gave the field hope, and made the last one that only determined the margin of victory.
Choi, a 37-year-old from South Korea, became the first outright wire-to-wire winner at the Sony Open since Paul Azinger in 2000.
Steve Stricker birdied the last hole for a 70 and finished in a tie for fourth with Stephen Marino (72), Pat Perez (70) and Kevin Na, who made eagle on the final hole for a 72. Stricker started his year with consecutive top 5s.
Sabbatini can't complain about his start, either.
"All things considered, I'm really looking forward to the rest of the season," he said.
Sabbatini knew he would need help from Choi, and the South Korean nearly obliged except for a putter that bailed him out early.
Choi holed a 12-foot putt to save par on the opening hole. He couldn't reach the green from the thick rough on No. 2, but again escaped with par with a pitch from 60 yards and a 12-foot putt. After he pulled his tee shot left of the bunker on the par-3 fourth, he came up short and into the sand, and had to make an 8-foot putt for bogey.
Fortunately for him, no one was making a run.
Sabbatini's bid was slowed when his 2-iron off the tee at No. 8 struck a tree and dropped into a hazard, leading to double bogey. That put him put him six shots behind, but he kept plugging away, trying to keep it close, hopeful of Choi making a mistake.
It was a little of both.
Sabbatini bounced back with a birdie on the par-5 ninth and a 10-foot birdie on the 11th, and he was back in the picture for good when his 35-foot birdie on the 13th bang into the back of the cup.
That's where Choi added some drama into the final round. It looked like he would finish the 13th with another two-putt par until he missed from 3 feet -- his first three-putt of the tournament. Sabbatini dropped another shot on the 15th, but showed no quit with a brilliant approach to a front pin on the 16th to 4 feet.
His hopes ended with a shot into the sun that he never saw, the ball landing at the back end of the green some 65 feet away for eagle. Sabbatini left it 8 feet short and missed that to the right.
Kelly had a remarkable bogey-free round, and the consolation was a third-place finish. Kelly came into the week at No. 64 in the world ranking, and he will move into the mid-50s with only four weeks before the deadline to qualify for the Accenture Match Play Championship.
"I'm aware of that, but I'm not worried about it," Kelly said. "I've always paid too much attention to everything. I'm trying to get away from the future and the past, because I've handled both of them poorly."
DIVOTS: Parker McLachlin, the only Hawaii native to make the cut,
closed with a 70 to tie for 10th. ... Jim McGovern closed with a 76, but was consoled by his beloved New York Giants going to the NFC Championship. The Giants-Bucs wild-card game was moved to Sunday, the day McGovern flew from New Jersey to Hawaii. Sunday's game was at 11 a.m. local time, 30 minutes after he teed off. If he gets into the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, he'll probably miss that game, too.