The first indication that Si Woo Kim, the young South Korean player, might actually contend at the Player’s Championship came on the back nine of the third round. Bogey-free and 4-under through 13 holes on Saturday, Kim pushed his drive to the right at the par-4 14th, leaving him 268 yards to the pin in the rough after a drop from the cart path. Faced with a daunting approach, Kim calmly proceeded to pull out his driver from the bag and, even more miraculously, smash it over water and trees to the green. Faced with no less than 82 feet for birdie, he got down in two for the most improbable par you can devise. It was not the audacity (bordering on recklessness) of that driver-of-the-deck, nor the fact that he had the skill to make that shot, which got everyone to sit up and take notice: rather, it was the quiet belief that the youngster obviously has in his game, and his ability to stay disconnected with the result, that made the video of this shot go viral the world over. Even the commentator, yesteryear legend Johnny Miller, not known for being effusive, blurted, “what a shot…that was a heck of a shot…” Ask any pro golfer and he’ll tell you that winners on the highest level aren’t made by golfing skills, but self-belief and the ability to stay in the moment. Kim picked up a stroke with a birdie on the 17th and shot four-under-par 68 and got to seven-under par, two shots behind co-leaders JB Holmes and Kyle Stanley, going into the final round.
To be fair, Kim’s run through three rounds wasn’t completely out of the blue. The Korean phenom announced his arrival on the PGA Tour by winning the Wyndham Championship in 2016; not only did he win it, but he did so comprehensively—by five strokes—fuelled by an astonishing 10-under 60 in his third round that got him the lead, which he never relinquished. But that win did not spark a purple patch: to the contrary, Kim, who turned pro at the age of 17 years, continued to struggle on the PGA Tour post his win, and leading up to the Player’s Championship. Before he arrived at the TPC Sawgrass, Kim had missed six cuts and withdrawn thrice in 15 starts since January 2017. He’d also shot a score of 80 and over a shocking four times in this period; needless to say, the kid wasn’t on the radar to win golf’s unofficial ‘fifth major’.
At Sawgrass, Kim made no apparent move to catch the leaders on the final day, but just continued his steady play as Holmes and Stanley fell away on their own accord. Three birdies on the front nine brought him the sole possession of the lead, which he held on with alacrity after recording nine straight pars to wrap up the tournament. Let me reiterate that: nine straight pars with a two-shot lead on the final nine holes of one of the biggest stages in golf. Against a top-class field, if Kim felt he was out of his depth then he certainly didn’t show it. To put his victory in reference, in the past 25 years, only three players have won two PGA Tour titles at a younger age—Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth. That’s very rarified air and leaves no doubt about the Korean’s potential.
“I feel like I’m still dreaming,” Kim said on Sunday. “I never expected that I’m going to win this tournament and I wasn’t doing that well at the beginning of this year, but I’m just so excited that I could be the champion for this tournament.”
Another aspect of Kim’s game that makes him an outlier is his golf swing: a calm, smooth and easy action that resembles the rhythmic motions you’re more likely to see in his female counterparts on the LPGA, rather than the power-oriented golf swings that have come to dominate the men’s game. That means he’s not particularly long off the tee: for instance, the driver he hit off the deck would have been no more than a five-wood, or even a long iron for the longer hitters. But that doesn’t translate into safe play: the shots that Kim hit on the back nine of the final round were more akin to what someone like Phil Mickelson would hit: straight for the pin in most cases, and flirting with danger on the fairways. Add to that a silken touch around the greens that commentators gushed over as being in the same league as the greats of the game. That touch comes by playing with a weak grip—another anomaly in modern golf—that’s possibly the weakest grip on tour.
The win gets Kim a five-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and it appears as if the youngster is on the verge of a brilliant career, except for one small obstacle—military conscription. All able-bodied South Korean men between the ages of 18 and 35 are required to serve for a minimum of 21 months in the military, and Kim has not yet signed up. The country offers exemptions to athletes who win a medal of any colour at the Olympics or gold at the Asian Games—but not to Players champions.
“I really wish we could have that benefit,” Kim told reporters after hoisting the trophy. “However, regardless of me winning this tournament I really have to go to the military service, and I’ve already decided I’m going to go so I’m ready for that.”
He may not have an option: in 2015, Kim’s compatriot Bae Sang-moon, another two-time winner on the PGA Tour, lost a legal battle to defer his military service. Sang-moon is scheduled to return in 2018, but it’s uncertain as to how long it will take him to resurrect a promising career. Kim, on the other hand, can take solace in the fact that at 21 years of age, he’s got enough time to be able to get his career back on track even if he’s out of action for close to two years. He certainly seems to have the mental strength required to do that.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game