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Masterful form helps Choi take charge at Hilton Head

ATLANTA (Reuters) - South Korean KJ Choi brought his U.S. Masters momentum with him to the Heritage Classic in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina to charge into a two-shot lead in Thursday's opening round.

Choi, who tied for fourth with Tiger Woods last week in the first major of the year, fired a sparkling seven-under-par 64 on a glorious day of sunshine at the picturesque Harbour Town Golf Links.

The thick-set Korean, nicknamed 'Tank' from his teenage days as a power lifter, wielded a red-hot putter and took early control of the tournament with a flawless back nine of four-under 31.

Choi holed birdie putts from around 12 feet at the 11th, 13th and 15th before hitting a superb approach to a foot at the par-four 16th to set up his eighth birdie of the day.

He parred the last two holes to end the round two strokes in front of Canadian left-hander Mike Weir and Britain's Greg Owen.

Five-times champion Davis Love III, fellow American and world number six Jim Furyk, Spaniard Sergio Garcia and South African Tim Clark were among a group of 13 players bunched on 67.

"My confidence is up," Choi told reporters after a round featuring eight birdies and a lone bogey at the par-four third where he three-putted.

"Normally after the Masters I'll go back home but for some reason this year I wanted to come here. I've been playing good and I guess I wanted to keep that rhythm going.

GALLERY SUPPORT

"Now that I'm here and I see the reactions of the gallery and the sponsors, I feel a lot of support. I feel very good."

Choi needed only 23 putts in his opening round, reward for extra practice earlier in the day.

"Last week and this week, the putting is very important, especially in reading the speed of the greens," Choi said.

"This morning before I went out I practiced on the putting green. I practiced a lot and I checked the speed of the greens. I felt really good about it."

Choi played all four rounds with world number one Woods in front of huge crowds at last week's Masters where the duo finished level after closing with matching rounds of 69.

"I actually learned a lot from that experience," said the 39-year-old Korean, a seven-times winner on the PGA Tour. "Two things mainly: being patient and keeping focus, and I was able to do both last week.

"I think that experience is only going to help me get much better, and I'm thankful for that."

(Writing by Mark Lamport-Stokes in Los Angeles; Editing by Alison Wildey)