I.K. Kim wears her scar so elegantly.
She wears it with such dignity that you have to wonder if the heartbreaking way she lost the Kraft Nabisco Championship last year wounded her at all, but when you explore the nature of her defeat you see the real story of her return to Mission Hills this week is all about the power of healing.
Scars are a peculiar phenomenon in sport.
They’re like road maps, but you never quite know where they are going to lead. They can lead to slumps and ruin, or they can lead to mountaintops.
Kim’s journey turned cruelly with long shadows falling across the 18th green of the Dinah Shore course late Sunday afternoon a year ago.
When she missed the short putt that could have won her first major championship, the gasps around Mission Hills echoed through the game’s history of tortured finishes.
The putt was shorter than Scott Hoch’s miss when he lost the Masters to Nick Faldo in 1989, shorter than Doug Sanders’ miss when he lost the British Open to Jack Nicklaus in ’70 and shorter than Sam Snead’s miss that would have won him his first and only U.S. Open in ’47.
In the bewildering moments after Kim’s putt horseshoed out of the 18th hole, Golf Channel’s Terry Gannon broke the poignant pause in the telecast to put words to the pictures. He expressed what so many disbelieving fans were thinking.
“I’m not sure I have ever seen a short putt like that missed in a moment like this,” he said. “This was just a formality.”
The putt was estimated to be as short as a foot, but the official length seems to have settled at 14 inches.
Even Kim is not completely certain how she missed a putt that couldn’t be missed. The Indio effect, a mysterious force blamed for pulling putts toward the city of Indio in the Coachella Valley, pulled so much more with it on that Sunday a year ago. It pulled a player’s dream with it.
Jeehae Lee, the former LPGA pro who now manages Michelle Wie for IMG, captured how deeply the jolt shook Kim’s admirers.
“I’m crying,” Lee tweeted in the moments after. “I’ve never been so devastated for anyone in golf.”
Kim, 24, returns to the Kraft Nabisco Championship as the most compelling story in the year’s first major, more so than fellow South Korean Sun Young Yoo, who beat Kim in a playoff to win last year. More so than Stacy Lewis, Yani Tseng, Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie or Lydia Ko.
“I very much would like to see I.K. redeem herself, whether it’s at the Kraft Nabisco, or wherever,” Hall of Famer Judy Rankin said last week about Kim’s return. “She’s just a wonderful player. I thought she handled it well, as beautifully as any player ever, but I do believe – she may say this isn’t true – but I do believe it left a scar. She has got to do some good things to have that heal.”
Kim told Golfchannel.com she is eager to return to Mission Hills.
“Of course, nobody knows what is going to happen, but in I.K.’s world, she’s all clear about this,” said Vision54’s Pia Nilsson, a coach who began working with Kim about three months after the Kraft Nabisco loss. “She’s looking forward to going back. She knows she is going to be asked about what happened, and she is going to be reminded of it, but she is as prepared as she can be for that. She knows what she wants to say, and she doesn’t mind talking about it.
“I feel like, no matter what she does there, she will conduct herself in a way that will make her a real role model for future golfers.”
Of course, there is a challenge ahead with all the memories and curiosity that await her.
“I think it’s a great opportunity,” Kim told GolfChannel.com. “That was my best finish in a major, and I feel even more confident going there this year. We are starting fresh, we aren’t going back to last year.”
Kim arrives for the Kraft Nabisco with some mixed momentum. She showed terrific form nearly winning the Kia Classic last week, but there was disappointment in the end, another playoff loss, this time to Beatriz Recari. Kim lost after three-putting the 18th hole in regulation and three-putting the first hole of sudden death.
“It would have been great if I had won, but I played well,” Kim said. “I think I'm going in the right direction, and I just think I'm working on the right things.”
Given Kim’s reputation as one of the LPGA’s most gentle and generous spirits, last year’s ending seemed cosmically unjust. This is a woman who donated her entire $220,000 first-place check to charity after winning the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in 2010, the last of her three LPGA titles. She was so moved when Ochoa gave her a tour of the school she built for underprivileged children in Mexico that she gave half her winnings to Ochoa’s foundation. She gave the other half to the Special Olympics, a cause so dear to her that she serves as the organization’s official ambassador of golf.
“Donating an entire first-place check, that’s not the typical thing you see a young player do,” said James Siekmann, Kim’s short-game coach. “Most 22-year-olds, they’re going to go out and buy a Porsche. She’s very impressive in how she just wants to do things for people, in the way she wants to live the right way.”
Nilsson and Lynn Marriott of Vision54 join Siekmann, swing coach Greg Rose and IMG agent Jay Burton on Kim’s formidable team. Her coaches like her state of mind heading back to Mission Hills.
“I really thought what happened there would devastate her – it would me – but it didn’t,” Siekmann said. “The most successful people in life, whether it’s a Michael Jordan, or leaders in the business world, they’re willing to fail, and they know failure isn’t going to define them.
“I.K. has never been afraid. She’s amazingly strong mentally, and she’s a very tough competitor.”
The anatomy of a scar
After Kim’s putt horseshoes out of the 18th hole, she recoils.
She covers her mouth with her left hand at the sight of her ball trickling back toward her feet, and then she swivels her head to the left, where her eyes lock on John Limanti, her caddie.
But, there’s nothing Limanti can do with gasps turning to groans through the bleachers.
This is as wickedly lonely as golf gets.
This is the game at its cruelest, ruthlessly stripping a soul bare in a way no other game quite can.
“Nobody was thinking she was going to miss that putt,” said Hee Kyung Seo, who played that Sunday with Kim. “I was leading, and I bogeyed the final four holes, and even though I had my own bad feelings, I felt so sorry for her.”
Eun Hee Ji was the third player in the threesome with Kim.
“Nobody was thinking of the possibility she would miss that putt,” said Ji, who won the 2009 U.S. Open. “I just felt really bad for her.”
After tapping in for bogey, Kim staggers off the 18th green and turns to Limanti, trying to make sense of what just happened.
“It broke,” Kim tells him. “That putt broke.”
Limanti puts his left arm around Kim and gently squeezes her left shoulder.
“It’s going to be OK,” Limanti tells her. “We can still do this. We’re going to a playoff, and we can still do this.”
Kim, though, is a thousand miles away, somewhere adrift in golf’s coldest and loneliest landscape, way out there with her miss still fresh and raw. She was supposed to be preparing to leap into Poppie’s Pond, to bask in the glory of the event’s wonderful winner’s ritual, but now she is marching uncertainly to the scorer’s tent. She clamps both her hands on her head as if trying to contain a memory more brutal than a migraine.
Once inside the scorer’s tent, the emotion overwhelms her. She struggles with her scorecard.
“She was trying to do her scorecard, and she couldn’t,” said Dean Herden, Seo’s caddie. “She was just shaking. They’re going over her scores, and she isn’t hearing anything. She just had this blank look on her face.”
And tears rolling across her cheeks.
“She was crying,” Ji said.
After leaving scoring, still reeling as she waited to see if Yani Tseng would birdie the final hole and join her and Yoo in a playoff, Kim throws a golf ball into the palm of her left hand. She repeats it, throwing the ball harder this time. She throws it eight times into the palm of her hand, hard and fast every time.
Limanti feels Kim’s pain, and he sees how far away it’s taking her, and he turns her toward him with his hands on her shoulders and locks eyes with her again.
“Listen, have some water, relax, everything is going to be all right,” Limanti tells her. “It’s just golf. We just have to get back in our process now and quit thinking about results.”
Limanti could see the challenge.
“I don’t think she heard me,” he said. “She was just devastated.”
Three back of Yani Tseng and Karin Sjodin beginning the day, Kim’s steady play kept her three back of the new leader, Seo, on the back nine. That’s where Kim made her move. She birdied the 14th, 16th and 17th holes in a brilliant run under pressure to take a one-shot lead to the 18th hole. Even with a bogey at the 72nd hole, Kim shot 69. Only two players posted better scores in the final round.
Kim, though, never stood a chance against Yoo in the playoff. She pulled her first tee shot left in sudden death in her return to the 18th hole with one hand coming off the club in her follow through.
“I had never seen her do that before, one-handing a shot like that,” Limanti said.
Kim’s drive veered hard toward trouble before checking up in the rough near water’s edge. Kim played so well for 71 and 4/5 holes of the Kraft Nabisco, but she was off out of sorts now.
Yoo ended Kim’s misery, holing an 18-foot birdie to win the playoff on that first sudden-death hole.
Later, in the blur of the aftermath, with Limanti putting Kim’s golf clubs into her car in the Mission Hills parking lot, Kim felt compelled to say something before they parted ways. She was driving back to her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif., with her mother. Limanti was flying to Pebble Beach to see his cousin.
“I am sorry,” Kim said.
“For what?” Limanti answered. “You tried as hard as you could, I.K. That’s all a caddie can ever ask.”
They would part ways amiably early last summer when Kim was forced to sit out six weeks with a wrist injury. Limanti needed work, and he returned to the PGA Tour.
“I’m still pulling for her,” Limanti said. “She’s going to win majors and more tournaments.”
Anatomy of a miss
A few days after the Kraft Nabisco, Kim called Limanti. They were amid two weeks off before heading to Hawaii, and she was still sorting through how and why she missed the putt. They talked for an hour.
After Kim teased the hole with a 15-foot birdie chance just before the miss, she dropped to her knees. She could see how the ball trickled left and subtly away from the hole, but she didn’t appear to rush the next shot after getting back to her feet. She even marked her ball, quickly replaced it, then backpedaled three steps for one last look. She took her stance, rocked left and right on her feet to get comfortable and . . . rammed the putt into the right corner of the hole, where it caught the lip and spun 360 degrees out of the hole.
Kim told Limanti that even though she went through a normal routine, she might not have been completely focused on the putt.
“She said she might have gotten a little ahead of herself, that she was thinking about what the putt meant,” Limanti said. “As humans, we’re so results oriented, it’s easy to do.”
Even Ji’s and Seo’s caddies were focused on what that little putt would mean.
“Before I.K. hit the putt, the other caddies were congratulating me,” Limanti said. “I’m like, `Hey, guys, it’s not over,’ and I stepped away from them. We had another group in the fairway behind us with a chance.”
No matter how much a player practices “staying in the moment,” there’s no greater challenge to the mindset than at the very end of a major, when a player is on the verge of winning.
Kim is a testament to that. Limanti became Kim’s caddie in Thailand in her first event last year. He toted her bag for four tournaments leading into the Kraft Nabisco.
“When I first went to work for her, I asked her what her goals were,” Limanti said.
Kim surprised Limanti. Her No. 1 goal wasn’t to win a major championship, even though her record in big events portended a breakthrough. She won the U.S. Girls’ Junior when she was 17. She won three LPGA titles and one Ladies European Tour title by her 22nd birthday. Her second-place finish to Yoo at the Kraft last year was her sixth finish of T-5 or better in a major.
“She said her main goal was to have the best process on tour,” Limanti said. “And she was so good at that.”
Siekmann called Kim after the miss. They talked again later in the week. She told him how she was surprised how the putt broke to the right side of the hole.
“It was short enough, she told me, that she just took it for granted,” Siekmann said. “She said she wanted to play it straight in and hit it hard. That putt, 99 times out of 100, you hit it firm and in the middle, and it goes in. She said if she had to do it over again, she would have played it left center.”
Limanti wonders if the long, slow and easy rhythm of Kim’s putting stroke wasn’t a factor, but he isn’t sure.
“If you’re deliberate in your stroke, it’s easy to open the blade, versus if you accelerate,” Limanti said. “I wouldn’t say she made a bad stroke. She was just unlucky.”
Kim’s putting stats tell you she’s one of the best and most consistent putters on tour. She was fourth in putts per greens in regulation last year, also fourth in ’11. She hasn’t ranked worse than seventh in putts per GIR over the last five full seasons.
Still, Kim did have an issue in the past missing short putts.
Rankin was almost prophetic in the Golf Channel telecast in the moments leading up to Kim’s miss.
With Kim over that 15-foot birdie putt before the miss, Rankin said: “If anything has kept her from this moment, it’s her putting. Her ball striking rarely deserts her.”
Rankin told GolfChannel.com last week that she did not even remember making the remark.
“She’s a terrific player Tee to Green,” Rankin said. “She has not been, throughout her career, a real confident putter. She had this little failing where she would shoot a great round of golf, she would shoot 65, 66 somewhere, but it seemed like almost every day there was one little short miss that you would not expect. I sure did not expect it that day. I absolutely did not.”
Short misses were something Kim addressed when she went to work with Siekmann.
“I.K. is a great putter, but she had an occasional issue with short putts, nothing mental, more technical, where she was hitting them quick and hard,” Siekmann said.
Kim struggled with a wrist injury in the first couple months after losing at Kraft. She didn’t contend again until tying for fifth at the Jamie Farr four months after Kraft.
The art and science of healing
As a professional golfer, how do you know when the wound of a painful loss is really healed?
Do you have to tattoo a major championship triumph over a scar to prove it’s no longer tender to the touch?
And how do you move on when nobody seems to want to allow you to completely move on?
While Kim impressed Vision54 founders Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott with her positive outlook, they did not have to wait long to confront “the miss.” When Kim first approached them for help at the Evian Masters last summer, she brought it up.
“I.K. had such a mature view before we even talked about it,” Nilsson said. “It wasn’t so much her having a hard time dealing with it, it was everyone else.”
Siekmann saw Kim facing that same challenge.
“I.K.’s like, `Why is everybody making such a big deal of it?’” Siekmann said.
At the very first major after Kraft last year, Kim made amusing light of her miss during a Golf Channel spot with Jerry Foltz. At the LPGA Championship, she showed Foltz various ways she could have made that 14-inch putt at Mission Hills. She made the first one-handed. She made one left-handed, with her putter head twisted upside down. She chipped one in. She kick-putted another in.
Kim told GolfChannel.com that life is full of disappointments, that people all over the world must deal with heartbreak or failure on large and small scales every day.
“It’s life,” Kim said. “You can’t control everything. You can learn from things. You can work and practice. You can try to do better and move on.”
If you Google Kim’s name, the first topic option the search engine delivers is “I.K. Kim missed putt.”
Moving on isn’t easy when media keep asking about the loss, when television keeps replaying the miss, when even supportive fans meaning to encourage inadvertently keep bringing the memory back.
While playing the CN Canadian Women’s Open last summer, a pair of fans thrust photos in front of Kim wanting her to autograph them.
They were photos of Kim’s shocked reaction to missing the Kraft putt, shots of her recoiling with the ball at her feet, with her left hand to her mouth.
“I think that really bothered her,” Siekmann said.
So how do even the most well-grounded athletes move on against all of that?
Really, that’s one of the skills Kim wanted from Vision54. She wanted help with a strategy on how to move on when you feel like you’re swimming upstream.
Kim learned Vision54 offers a strategy with a bit of neuroscience in the approach.
“We talked about how the human brain stores memory,” Nilsson said. “Any time you experience something like she did, where there are strong emotions involved, it gets imprinted as a memory. It’s ancient brain development. If we didn’t have it, we wouldn’t survive. When you touch a hot stove, you remember.”
A key, Nilsson said, is trying to disconnect the emotion that comes with the memory.
“When you revisit the memory, you remember the emotion, and by doing so you keep storing the emotion as stronger and stronger,” Nilsson said. “Nobody gets away from this. It’s something we talk about with all golfers in how they deal with bad shots.”
Nilsson said it’s important to confront the memory objectively, to talk about it objectively and nonemotionally. The idea is to be detached in remembering what was learned.
“How the memory affects you in the future depends on you choosing to talk about it more objectively and maybe even changing the conversation,” Nilsson said.
Kim rose as high as No. 5 in the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings last year. She’s No. 15 today, but she’s more than a golfer. Her world view is larger than that. The LPGA set out to show that on its website late last year with a centerpiece titled “I.K. Kim is more than a missed putt.” In it, Kim reveals how she became a late-blooming guitar player, how she’s an avid reader, how she’s studying French and most recently how she has taken up meditation.
“Golf is what I do, not who I am,” Kim said. “We only live once, and I want to enjoy my life. It’s a miracle.”
It speaks to Kim’s nature that she remains friends with her former manager, Tommy Limbaugh, even after she dropped him to sign with IMG last year. Limbaugh represented her when she donated her winning check at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational and when she lost the Kraft last spring.
“I love her to death,” Limbaugh say. “She is one of the most special people you will ever meet. Who gives their entire first-place check away? Really, who does that? I.K. has developed a huge number of fans because of the kind of person she is.”
Kim is sure to have a legion of new fans rooting her around Mission Hills this week, rooting for her to create a new memory to trump that missed putt.
“Those things are hard to wipe out from your memory, they really are,” Rankin said. “I believe she will, because she's a very hard worker. She’s a thinking player. She’s a very smart young woman, and she's just too good not to overcome all this.”
In the meantime, Kim will wear her scar as elegantly as any player in the game can wear one.