He was charming when he putt an iron from 240 yards 2 and rolled into a ground-shaking birdie putt to keep hope alive for the Internationals at the Presidents Cup in September. He was humble after not being a bogey all week and bested Patrick Cantlay at the Shriners Kids Open in Las Vegas in October.
Youth, talent, googly presidents trophy glasses—Kim has it all, a gift from the Golf Gods that seems to have fallen from the sky completely. He will be among the headliners at the Sentry Tournament of Champions this week.
product of the world
Born in Korea to father Changik Lee and mother Kwangju Kim, Kim and his older brother, Gaouk Kim, moved to China for a few years before the family moved again and moved down to Australia so the brothers could learn English.
After living in the Down Under for seven years, the family moved again.
Kim said, “Once we learned English, we moved to the Philippines because Australia was a bit expensive, and we knew people in the Philippines.”
It was in the Philippines that Kim really took up golf, initially under the tutelage of his father, a professional teacher. (Somewhat surprisingly, Kim says their swings aren’t the same.) The game was accessible there, and Kim got into homeschooling. With designs to play the Asian Tour, he and his family moved again, this time to Thailand, which was more suitable for travel purposes. He turned professional at the age of 15.
Kim was too young for the Asian Tour, and played professionally in Thailand until he was 16 years old, when he failed to pass the Asian Tour qualifying school. Three quick wins on the Asian Development Tour followed, earning him temporary special membership on the Asian Tour, where he won on his second start. He was only 17 years old. And just as impressive, he was fluent in Tagalog, English, and Korean.
Kim speaks Korean to his parents, and English to his brother. He says he dreams in both languages.
Those dreams are yet to come true, he missed a shot at the Korn Ferry Tour Q-School in 2021, but then again, he didn’t stay long. He was awarded the Korean Order of Merit, and when the Asian Tour resumed after the COVID hiatus, he was awarded the Order of Merit for the 2020-21 season as well, for entry into the 2022 US Open and Open.
His goal was to play the Asian Tour and return to Korn Ferry Tour Q-School last fall.
As it turns out, bypass that circle entirely.
The quantum leap came not when he finished 23rd at the US Open, but when he finished third at the Genesis Scottish Open in July. After finishing T47 at The Open, he joined the PGA TOUR as a Special Temporary Member. His T26 at the 3M Open and solo seventh at the Rocket Mortgage Classic preceded his life-changing victory at Windham.
Kim, the first Tour winner born after 2000, is suddenly a TOUR card-holding professional.
“My childhood was always about golf,” he said in Champion. “I didn’t really have a life outside of that. There were a lot of sacrifices to do what I do now.”
making a splash
Don’t expect a booze-fuelled celebration when Kim turns 21.
He said, “I’m not a heavy drinker.” “I have never tried alcohol.”
When Kim and McIlroy were interviewed by Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis at the CJ Cup, Kim said he hadn’t drank a lot of beer after any of his wins. McElroy said, “Well, when you’re 21 and win your next PGA TOUR event, I’ll get you some drinks.”
“Oh, that’s great,” Kim said.
In The Hero in the Bahamas, Kim was pretty sure he wasn’t old enough to be in the casino. However, he was still the life of the party. He enjoyed getting the chance to talk to his favorite golf star, tournament host Woods, for the first time, even if he was a little nervous.
“I didn’t really know what to say to Tiger,” he said. I told him, We really miss you. We really wish you were playing this week. He’s like, ‘Good playing this year, and congrats.'”
The next day, Kim, Woods, Justin Thomas, Max Homma, Matt Fitzpatrick, Billy Hurschel, and Tommy Fleetwood miced their so-called champion shot, a distance of about 85 yards to the floating bullseye. Kim was so determined to win that at one point he called for a video replay, and when he finished second to Fitzpatrick, his head was in his hands as if smashed. I felt like he was only half joking.
“I mean, how can you not love Tom Kim?” said Spieth, who was sharing the home with his wife Annie, their son Sammy and Justin Thomas, and his wife Jill. “We use the same physicist, and he worked in the house we’re staying in, and when he left, Annie and Jill were like, ‘Isn’t he the nicest human being?'” That’s what everyone says about him.
“He’s so happy to be here, and he loves the game,” continued Spieth, the only player since World War II to win a Tour at a younger age than Kim. “It’s great. It reminds me of the way I thought when I was his age and it makes me want to go back to thinking that way.”
It is his enthusiasm that makes Kim so attractive. In the Champions locker room, Spieth asked him about food in Japan, where Kim finished fourth at Dunlop Phoenix in late November. Laurie threw in the towel. No doubt others noticed him and thought of a version of, Oh, to have his future.
“Tom Kim is fully qualified to be the next global superstar,” said Immelman. “He has an uncanny ability to have amazing self-confidence but still be humble. He’s like a shining light. It makes you want to root for him. It makes you want to be around him.”
His quickness to maturity causes a lot of that, but don’t underestimate his sense of humor.
When he wasn’t thrilled to be photographed at the Presidents Trophy, Kim would cut back and lighten the mood. First, he kept popping out his team-issued jeans and laughing as his teammates jeered. Then he said he didn’t want to play in black golf shoes because it would make his feet too hot. Then there were Kim’s goofy glasses with piercing eyes.
“Oh, yeah, I kept those glasses,” he said.
Ask him to pinpoint his most indelible moment and he pointed a 240-yard 2-iron approach and a 10-foot birdie hit to give him and Si Woo Kim a 1-up victory over Cantlay and Xander Schauffele in a four-ball match late Saturday afternoon. The rest of the matches were complete, so Kim threw this bolt not only to his colleagues, but also to the American golfer. The Internationals, who fell behind 10-4 that morning, have now cut the margin to 11-7 in singles, but are still behind but are now beyond energetic thanks to Kim.
“I just felt like it was a big time for our team to have that,” he said. “We lost (the next day), but whoever is on this team, going to Montreal, playing at home, I feel is going to give us some momentum. Beating the elite team the way we did, being 1 down with three to go, winning by 1 This is a memory that will last, who knows how long.”
stability for a long time
At the Wyndham Hotel, everything happened so fast he didn’t have time to think, Kim said. He wanted to show that it was no luck on the Shriners, as Cantlay, the 2021 FedExCup champion, came unglued on the 72nd hole. Kim became only the second player since Lee Trevino in 1974 to win the TOUR without making a bogey or worse (JT Poston did that Also at Windham 2019).
These days, Kim has started renting a house in Dallas, which will be his US base. He can return to Korea non-stop and is centrally located for tour play. He’ll train out of the Dallas National and Trinity Forest, giving him plenty of time to rub elbows with stars like Spieth, Will Zlatoris, and former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. Kim has been working with Cameron McCormick, known as Spieth’s trainer since childhood.
What exactly Kim might do to appear at 23 is a tantalizing prospect.
“It’s very good,” said Immelman. “He has a tremendous amount of talent.”
And like his compatriots – Kim, Si Woo Kim, Sungjae Im and KH Lee made up a third of the International Presidents’ Cup team – he has the work ethic to match. He’s also cleaned up his diet, cutting back if not eliminating Del Taco, Taco Bell, and Chick-fil-A.
Granted, Kim has some courses to study, because he’s never played TPC Sawgrass, the Augusta National, or the other major courses of the year: Oak Hill (PGA Championship), LA Country Club (US Open) or Royal Liverpool (Open Championship).
“I think I know every hole in Augusta from TV,” he said. “I think Jason Dufner was the last winner at Oak Hill?” (Kim was 11 years old.) As for other runs, veteran sack sack Joe Skofron, former sacking Rickie Fowler, should help him fill in the gaps.
Kim actually succeeded, but said he would be “more specific” in the gym. Courses in Asia have much narrower fairways, and he wants to feel more comfortable hitting the ball hard. His 240-yard approach on Quail Hollow – he admitted he stalled his lead in the wind, leaving him behind Si Woo, Cantlay and Schauffele – was insanely impressive, but probably unrepeatable.
His brother, who is five years his senior, just graduated from the army and is preparing for his master’s degree. His other older brother, of sorts, is Im, who is 24 and just married in Seoul. Then again, the way everyone’s taken for Kim, he has big brothers in Laurie and McIlroy and up and down the tour. He has a home. All you have to do now is allow Tank Engine to run.
“It’s up to me to play well now,” said Kim. “I know my schedule, I feel more comfortable. It’s up to me to start working. There are so many ways I can improve.
“I’m still a kid around these guys,” he continued. “I’m curious what they’re doing, how they think. I’m very aware of how lucky I am to be playing the PGA Tour at 20. It’s easy for people to take things for granted; I want to make sure I don’t lose that feeling.”