He managed to take the early lead and kept it at Hogan's Alley.
On a course that has given him fits, Choi played bogey-free in breezy conditions for 6-under 65 and a one-shot lead over Kevin Na in the Northern Trust Open.
"This course, I've always had trouble putting and my iron shots have always been a problem," Choi said. "But I felt like they were working today, and I think even the weather was pretty pleasant when I played. So it all worked out good."
It didn't work out so well for the late starters, who faced a strong wind that could be heard as much as it was felt, rattling the pins on every green and making it tough to get it close to the hole, especially as the sun and temperatures dropped late in the afternoon.
Seventeen players failed to finish the round before dark.
Chad Campbell and former Augusta State player Vaughn Taylor were at 67. Augusta native Charles Howell, the defending champion, shot 71.
Phil Mickelson took a 30-minute commute by plane from his home north of San Diego and opened with 68, dropping a shot on his final hole when his drive found the bunker and left him unable to reach the green.
Among those who failed to finish was Dustin Johnson, the best among rookies in the first two months. He was at 3 under and had a birdie putt on the 16th, and his bogey-free day included a most unlikely par. After driving over the green on the par-4 10th, he played off the sandy path, over a TV tower and just short, dropping into a bunker. He left his third shot in the bunker.
"I told my caddie, 'This one should be easier,' " Johnson said.
He holed it for par.
Those scores were hard to find late in the day, when the wind shifted directions. Geoff Ogilvy played into the wind through the fifth hole, which heads toward the ocean, then found the wind in his face 20 minutes later as he stood on the seventh tee.
"Not possible," he said after a hard-earned 69. "The whole front nine felt into the wind."
Sergio Garcia, among several international players making their '08 debut on the PGA Tour, opened with 74. Adam Scott shot 73, while Retief Goosen shot 42 on the front on his way to 79.
Riviera, where Ben Hogan won the Los Angeles Open and the U.S. Open in 1948, is firm and fast this year with recent dry weather, and it showed on some of the greens, where the ball sprung forward upon landing and made it tough to get close to the pin.
Choi usually struggles at Riviera in any conditions. He has played the last seven years and finished in the top 20 only once, in 2003 when he tied for fifth.
But he worked on his game last week instead of playing Pebble Beach, and while he was still confused over the breaks on various putts, his final assessment would have made Yogi Berra proud.
"Shooting 6 under, you can't be sad about that, so I'm very happy," he said.
John Daly was atop the leaderboard at times during the morning and finished with 69, which might have been better had he not taken a tour of the barranca that divides the eighth fairway and made double bogey.