CHARLOTTE, N.C. – The practice range at Quail Hollow was filled with PGA Tour players Tuesday afternoon, making it too busy for Anthony Kim.
He took his game - or what's left of it - behind a row of trees near the short-game area where no one could watch. He found a patch of grass where he could fire shots through a wide gap in the trees, and Kim stayed there for nearly two hours under a hot sun.
Kim didn't want anyone to watch. And he didn't want to hear the whispers that have followed him for the last four months.
What's wrong with this guy?
He attributes it to nagging injuries - the left thumb that was operated on in 2010 and cost him a spot on the Ryder Cup team, right elbow, right wrist. There is no structural damage and nothing to keep him from playing, though he is losing practice time.
And it shows.
Kim has completed only two of the nine tournaments he has played. He has missed the cut four times. He was disqualified after opening with a 78 at Riviera. He withdrew from the last two tournaments he played, after a 79 in the first round at Houston and midway through the opening round in San Antonio, after he hit a 5-iron out of a bush, without realizing there was a rock next to his ball. Kim said the ball went 200 yards, and the rock went 15 yards.
Kim said his caddie cleaned out his locker at the Texas Open, when he pulled out. He didn't feel like facing other players, who would see him leaving a tournament far too early.
''I hear it all the time ... across the locker room doors,'' Kim said. ''I hear people, 'What is going on with him?' I hear little comments. 'He doesn't care about golf.' Everyone has a reason. No one knows the reason but me. I need to hit balls, practice. But I'm hurting myself by hitting more balls.''
He is No. 210 on the money list with $33,960. In his first five seasons on Tour, he averaged $107,585 per tournament. If he doesn't turn it around soon, Kim is in danger of losing his card.
He is well aware of this. It's one thing to hear it from the players. Kim even heard from his mother.
''My mom told me, 'Hey, there's a caddie that said he made $60,000 caddying at my club. The caddie stays at home and works four days a week. He's made $60,000. You've only made $30,000,' '' Kim said. ''I couldn't do anything but laugh.''
Laughter has been rare this year.
Kim was not eligible for the Masters. He is not exempt for the U.S. Open. Tuesday was the first time he hit balls since he withdrew from the Texas Open. After one swing, he clutched his right elbow. There was a duck-hook with the driver, another shot that resembled a shank. The other shots were mostly good, though Kim said he still feels a jolt in his elbow even after hitting wedges.
''My body feels like it's coming back, and then there's one little thing after another,'' he said. ''It's been a frustrating year. I'm trying to have a good attitude, but it gets tougher and tougher.''
It's hard to believe that only four years ago, Kim was being heralded as a rising star. He won Quail Hollow by five shots for his first Tour win, then won the AT&T National two months later to become the first American under 25 since Tiger Woods to win at least twice in one season. At the Ryder Cup that year, he was the catalyst in a rare American victory.
That's becoming a distant memory. Reasons are starting to sound more like excuses.
''I feel closer than everyone thinks,'' Kim said. ''I don't see why I can't go out there and shoot in the mid-60s every day. I know the golf I have played has been closer to 80 than 60. But I don't feel that much different.''
Everything about him is different, though.
He no longer has a bag deal, so Kim is using a red carry bag that says ''Oklahoma Sooners,'' a bag typically seen at college tournaments. He no longer has a big entourage. He has lost some of his swagger, though the 26-year-old Kim is engaging as ever, quick to smile and delightful when he's around kids.
His mother, who showed a sense of humor with the dig about the club caddie, remains his biggest fan. She rarely comes to tournaments and cares only that her son is happy, even if he wants to stop playing golf and come home to Los Angeles.
What made her remind Kim that he could lose his card?
''She doesn't think I think enough,'' Kim said, and he didn't argue that point. ''She has to do it for both of us.''
Kim probably should take more time off, especially if he's feeling minor pain in his elbow when he swings the club. He wants to get his thumb checked out next week when he has a day off at The Players Championship. He was concerned that when he struck that rock at the Texas Open, he felt pain in both hands.
''I need to play. I want to play,'' he said. ''And obviously I need to get it going pretty soon.''
Despite an atrocious start to the season, he says his injuries are more physical than mental. Sure, his confidence has suffered, but he had enough in the first place so the tank is not empty.
Besides, the Wells Fargo Championship is important to him. This is where he won for the first time, setting the tournament record at 16-under 272.
''That was the start of my career,'' he said. ''Hopefully, I can start a new one here.''