Classic Golf Resort. Circa 2019. A precocious 17-year-old shot a stunning seven-under 65 in the third (and final) round of the rain-truncated Panasonic Open. The teenager’s stupendous effort put the trophy one stroke past local favourite Shiv Kapur’s final tally. Kapur, who on that occasion made an agonising bogey on the final hole of the event to lose by one, had been vying to become the first repeat winner of the Asian Tour event. While most of us had been rooting for Kapur’s win, the Delhi player’s heartbreaking loss didn’t take away from Kim’s play. To shoot such a low number on a course you’ve never played before the event, and to do it under inclement conditions spoke highly of the Korean’s self-determination, and sheer quality of ball striking. What made an even bigger impression on us was Kim’s articulate English at the post-even presser. That singled him out as a rarity amongst his countrymen who ply their trade on the Asian Tour. His swing, simple almost to a fault, seemed dependable but wasn’t one of those actions that amateurs like to watch in slow motion on YouTube. Neither was he exceptionally long off the tee—another trait that draws fans to a player. He did seem a pretty good putter, not extraordinary, but better than most. The Panasonic Open was his first Asian Tour win, coming after three wins on the Asian Development Tour that earned him his card in 2019. I remember thinking that here was a kid who—if he managed to avoid the premature burnout that very young pros can be susceptible to—would go on to become a top player…in Asia.
But no one, your columnist included, could have possibly foreseen what’s transpired in 2022. For those who may not know, here’s a quick summary of Tom Kim’s year of reckoning: it all began with the second Asian Tour win in January 2022 in Singapore that made him the Tour’s leading money winner for the season. His status on the Korean Tour got him into the Scottish Open on the European Tour in which he finished third and leapfrogged into the field for his first Major—the Open Championship. A Top-50 finish there and the young man had a foot in the door on the PGA Tour with a conditional card. A few decent finishes later, he won the Wyndham Championship. It was at the Wyndham that people really stood up and took notice. It wasn’t the fact that Kim won the event but that he did so despite beginning his campaign with a quadruple bogey on the very first hole of the event. He closed with an astonishing nine-under 61 to wrap things up and secure his place on the PGA Tour.
Then came the President’s Cup. At the bi-annual US versus International team event, Kim took the limelight in a manner that is unprecedented for a member of the team that lost. His fist pumps, loud self-exhortations, and uproarious celebrations are exactly what the doctor ordered. For the game that is. Televised sport needs characters, and golf, let’s face it, needs even more: young blood, more diversity, and international representation. Kim wasn’t just at the right place at the right time. He shone at the opportunity. The youngster’s ‘coming out of nowhere,’ and stealing the show at the President’s Cup, had fans in thrall in a way no Korean-origin player has been able to generate in recent memory. Part of that popularity is undoubtedly Kim’s childlike demeanour on the course—focused on winning and having fun—but there’s also something to be said for his articulate communication punctuated by a strong Australian accent. You get the picture: a baby-faced Korean with an Aussie drawl who goes out and plays like his life depends on it.
And that rising star refuses to level off. A couple of weeks back, Kim was at it again, this time at the Shriner’s Children Open. Battling with the unflappable Patrick Cantlay down the final stretch, Kim kept his composure, winning by three shots. His tournament record-tying 24-under 260 was compiled over a four-days play during which he did not drop a single stroke. That feat—winning a stroke play event without a single bogey hasn’t been achieved since JT Poston’s winning effort at the 2019 Wyndham Championship.
Those aren’t the records that matter to Kim though. The 2002-born player hasn’t known a pre-Tiger Woods golf world. Not surprisingly, he attributes his interest in the game to being motivated by watching Tiger do, well, tiger-esque stuff.
It’s only fitting then that the Korean is being compared to Woods: whether it’s the fact that he is the only player to have won twice on the PGA Tour before the age of 21 after Tiger pulled off that feat. At Shriner’s, Kim might have been riding high on confidence but was physically ailing with a bad cough and cold. That didn’t stop him from putting together four rounds that rank right up there with some of the best overall performances in recent years. It’s the kind of ‘overcoming the odds,’ exploit that we’ve come to expect from Woods.
Kim pooh-poohed the comparison. “I’m not going to lie. There are some weaknesses that I need to get better at, and I need to keep the strengths that I have. I can’t get satisfied at all. I’m not even close to Tiger. Whether it’s Tiger, Rory, Justin, Jordan, those guys, I’ve still got a long way to go, so I just need to keep working,” he said after winning the Shriner’s Children’s Open. Now we just need to convince him to come back to India for the Panasonic Open. Tom Kim, now ranked 15th in the world, is the player to watch.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game