Kim All Grown Up


It was a textbook study in contrasts. Four years ago this month, I huddled with Anthony Kim on a hill adjacent the 18th green of PGA West’s Palmer Course. The 21-year-old came as advertised – bold and brash just three rounds into his rookie campaign.

Fast forward four long and surprisingly eventful years, to another cold California hill adjacent Sherwood Country Club’s scenic closing hole. This time AK is an “old” 25, weathered by more ebbs and flows than a Goldman Sachs stock option and, even more importantly, shaken by the realization that the game that at times has come so easily to him could be whisked away by the capriciousness of a single frayed ligament.

Anthony Kim
Anthony Kim has three career PGA Tour victories. (Getty Images)
“The next three weeks we’re going to grind through Hawaii and keep grinding,” Kim said last month at the Chevron World Challenge. “I know I practice in spurts, but I learned this year how important golf was to me and that it can go away pretty fast with something as little as a thumb injury.”

To put Kim’s “A” ticket ride in context, a history lesson is called for.

In 2008 Kim won twice on Tour, prestigious mid-major crowns at Quail Hollow and AT&T National, and was a hero of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, leading the way with a particularly dominating Sunday singles victory over Sergio Garcia.

Run ragged by a global schedule in 2009 (29 international events) he managed just three top-10 finishes and failed to advance to the Tour Championship. On cue, 2010 was shaping up to be a rebound year – with a victory at the Shell Houston Open and a third-place brush with Masters fame the following week – until surgery in May to repair ligament damage in his left thumb derailed the process.

In between there were allegations, by a Tour player no less, of late-night carousing before his Sunday match at the 2009 Presidents Cup; wild, and wildly unsubstantiated, reports of copious partying in Las Vegas this year; and untold speculation over his chronically wavering focus.

But know this about Anthony Kim: he does not make excuses. The 21-year-old at the 2007 Bob Hope Classic may not have been a picture of responsibility, but the 25-year-old version – for all his flaws and unfathomable talent – has no interest in denial or misdirection – particularly when asked if he had finally gotten a handle on what can only be described as a form of competitive A.D.D.

“Whether it’s been in high school or college or the pros, I’d say I practice in spurts. When I go, I go as hard as I can for a month and after that I want to take a month off,” Kim said. “I need to just consistently put in the time and I’m going to do that this year.”

In Kim’s defense, last year’s lapse was less about passion than it was about pain. The surgery in May was slow to heal and when he did return, the omnipresent “pinch” at impact begat compensations which begat bad habits.

“Through his injuries he developed very un-AK-like patterns,” long-time swing coach Adam Schreiber said. “It was really frustrating.”

Among some of these patterns was an increased use of Kim’s lower body, specifically his legs, to compensate for his inability to use his left hand as much as he normally had. As a result, Schreiber said Kim, who historically played a fade, developed a draw swing path.

“He’d try to hit that fade and would just pull it left,” Schreiber said.

The training room axiom “no one has ever come back too late from an injury” seems apropos. Against better judgment, Kim returned to the Tour at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in August in an attempt to make Corey Pavin’s Ryder Cup team, missed four consecutive cuts and failed to advance to East Lake or Celtic Manor.

“I wasn’t ready,” Kim concedes. “I was just trying to get points for the Ryder Cup. Once I got on a bad streak there I couldn’t fix my golf swing. I couldn’t practice and that really hurt my golf swing.”

Kim said his Wednesday practice round at Chevron was his first “pain free” loop in more than a year and Schreiber added that the bad habits he’d picked up along the comeback trail are starting to fade.

Even more encouraging, however, is the intensity in Kim’s voice when he talks about 2011. He cancelled a snowboarding trip to Montana in December to put in extra time to prepare for this week’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions and has gotten back some of the “pop” he lost as a result of the injury.

The “pop” has also returned to his step, smiling as he bound up the hill to Sherwood’s clubhouse last month – the energy of a teenager combined with the clarity of thought of a suddenly seasoned 25-year-old.

Whether that drive is sustainable remains to be seen, but the biggest difference between the 2007 brash rookie and the slightly bruised ’11 version is his willingness to accept ownership of what he does on and off the golf course.

“What really impresses me is he’s not using the injury as an excuse,” Schreiber said. “He is really growing up and it’s awesome.”