It wasn’t the roughest winter I’ve ever experienced in the great northeast, but it definitely has been the longest – and I’m not entirely sure it’s over. My aging bones are sick of the cold. My golf ball is shivering, my handicap is bloated, and my long-sleeve undershirts are begging for a day off.
Every aspect of the game is laborious in two clubs of breeze on a 47-degree afternoon. Without sufficient evidence of blood flow in my hands, my chances of making a 6-footer are lower than the temperature. A left-to-right crosswind turns me into a 15 handicap. Any chip to within 10 feet of the hole is cause for celebration, as the skating rink we call a golf course simply has no tolerance for a creaky-jointed chopper.
In two months, I’ll be whining about the humidity, but until then, a sweat-soaked baseball cap sounds pretty good.
SIX YEARS HAVE now passed since Anthony Kim roared to the center of the universe as golf’s Next Big Thing. A five-stroke victory over a premium field at Quail Hollow in May 2008 was as loud as arrivals get, and when Kim won the AT&T National nine weeks later, you couldn’t help but think America’s best player might be a 23-year-old kid of Asian descent and immense ability.
Tiger Woods had just undergone knee surgery. Phil Mickelson hadn’t won a major title in 27 months, and besides, the game’s populace almost seemed desperate for a splash of fresh young blood. Kim made more big noise at the Ryder Cup that fall, partnering successfully with Mickelson before destroying Sergio Garcia in the first match of the Sunday singles.
This week’s gathering at Quail Hollow also marks another anniversary – Kim hasn’t played a hole on the PGA Tour in precisely two years. He withdrew from the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship after a first-round 74, announced he was taking five months off because of tendinitis in his left arm, and then tore his Achilles while working out in San Diego about six weeks later.
We haven’t seen him since.
“I’m hopeful it will be in 2014,” Kim’s agent, Clarke Jones, told me Sunday. “Anything other than that is a guess, and I don’t like to guess. He’s a marvelous talent, but it has been a long time. There’s no denying that.”
I’ve known Jones for much longer; he’s as straight-up a man as anyone in his occupation can possibly be. I sensed his reluctance to answer questions regarding Kim. Not because he’s hiding anything, but because there are no answers, no timetable, nothing to report.
Very few players generate more bewilderment on my live chats than does Kim. He is still on the radar of many, even if he remains invisible, perhaps because his meteoric rise and sharp fall were seasoned by whispers that he enjoyed his adult beverages.
Kim did nothing to dismiss the notion that he was a fan of the nightlife, leaving one with the sense that he thought he could burn the candle any way he wanted. With that in mind, I must have written it a half-dozen times: no Tour pro can be giving away strokes to the field at 2 a.m.
At this point, though, none of that really matters. Owing to rumors that Kim's disappearance is due at least in part to a suspension from the Tour, Jones made himself very clear.
“I can categorically deny that there has been any suspension,” he said. “Nothing has been done by the PGA Tour to prevent Anthony from returning.”
In search of something resembling context, I asked Jones if Kim was playing any golf, even recreationally.
Doesn’t sound like much of a comeback, if you ask me. “He’s not living under a bridge, he’s not living in a box,” Jones added. “I’m going to go see him [in Texas] in a few weeks, and at that point, I’ll get a better definition of where he stands.”
SINCE THERE’S NO time like the present, I thought it would be interesting to merge the past and future when it comes to the all-time greats winning major championships. If Woods returns from back surgery to play in the British Open, as was reported last week, he would resume his quest to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ total of 18 titles.
Tiger turns 39 in December. The thought of him winning five more majors at this point in his career is ludicrous to some, but it certainly is possible – and probably more likely than you think.
Ben Hogan won five majors after his 38th birthday. Nicklaus himself won four, and for those who wonder if Woods’ health will hold up long enough to give Jack a run, it should be pointed out that Hogan won his after getting hit by a bus at 36.
Here’s a major count among historically relevant players from the age of 38 and beyond:
• Hogan: 5 of 9 total major victories
• Nicklaus: 4 of 18
• Gary Player: 3 of 9
• Sam Snead: 3 of 7
• Lee Trevino: 1 of 6
• Walter Hagen: 0 of 11
• Tom Watson: 0 of 8
• Gene Sarazen: 0 of 7
• Arnold Palmer: 0 of 7
From a long-term perspective, the thing to remember about Woods is that his body has continued to break down, almost at an alarming rate, despite being one of the strongest and most physically fit golfers ever. Nicklaus couldn’t find the gym unless you hid his fishing rods there, but he lasted for a couple of eternities and won major titles almost a quarter of a century apart.
Tiger doesn’t play a ton of tournament golf and still gets hurt. According to the tea leaves, that is not a good sign.
ONE OF THE more memorable things I’ve seen on a practice range involved Kim and Woods at Quail Hollow before the start of the 2007 tournament. Red Shirt was hitting balls late Wednesday morning when the rookie approached, a huge grin on his face, although it took a few swings before Kim could get his attention.
“Hey Tiger, check it out!” AK gushed, showing off his belt buckle, which was roughly the size of Rhode Island and featured his initials set in diamonds. Frankly, it appeared to swiped from Liberace’s closet, but Woods seemed cautious about embarrassing the kid – several people were watching the exchange.
Tiger responded with a good-natured chuckle, and then went back to beating balls. He would win that week. Kim would win the tournament the very next year. My, how things have changed.