SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – Look who emerged from the ethereal mist rolling over Sebonack Golf Club with the lead through Friday’s morning wave at the U.S. Women’s Open.
I.K. Kim is back on a major championship leaderboard.
Out of the fog, out of her funk and maybe, finally, out of the shadow hanging over the most unfortunate turn in her career.
More than a year since her heartbreaking loss at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, Kim is giving herself a chance to claim a prize that so cruelly escaped her at Mission Hills Country Club.
Anyone who follows the game knows the stunning turn Kim endured when it seemed certain she would claim her first major. Her inexplicable miss of a 14-inch putt at the 72nd hole broke more than her heart in Rancho Mirage, Calif. It broke the hearts of a legion of fans who love and admire her gentle spirit.
All these months later, Kim, 25, is back as more than a sentimental favorite.
How can you not root for a player who gave away her entire $220,000 first-place check to impoverished students and Special Olympic athletes after winning the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in 2010?
That was the last of Kim’s three LPGA titles.
With a 3-under-par 69 Friday, Kim pushed ahead of Inbee Park just as Park was teeing off in the afternoon wave. When Kim signed her scorecard, she was two shots clear of Park, three ahead of Caroline Hedwall and three in front of Lizette Salas. Late in the day, Park vaulted into the lead with a 4-under 68.
Kim, though, isn’t about to get ahead of herself. She confessed to confidants she might have done that before jabbing her putt off the lip at Kraft Nabisco. There is a weekend of big shots and putts left and a formidable fellow South Korean to beat with Rolex world No. 1 Park trying to win the first three majors of the season.
“There’s a lot of golf to play, and you never know what’s going to happen,” Kim said. “That’s the beauty of major championships.”
The not-so beautiful part, too, but Kim said she feels good about her life and the strong supporting cast behind her. While there are a lot of players who want to win this week, you won’t find many who wouldn’t enjoy seeing Kim break through. Back in South Korea, a nation of golf fans would celebrate.
“Everybody is cheering for I.K.,” said So Yeon Ryu, the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion. “It was a really sad moment at Kraft Nabisco, and I think everyone really felt badly for I.K., and then she struggled with her game after that. So, she really has a lot of support, but I think she is just fine and hopefully she can continue playing well.”
After that Kraft Nabisco loss, Kim struggled with a wrist injury. She couldn’t really give herself a good chance to bounce back with a win, but she’s finding her form again this year. All that’s missing this season is a victory. She has a second-place finish, two T-4s, a fifth-place finish and a sixth-place finish. She is sixth on the LPGA money list so far in 2013.
Though Kim has not won a major, she has a strong record contending, especially in the U.S. Women’s Open. She tied for third in this championship in 2008, tied for third again in ’09, finished fourth in ’10 and tied for 10th in 2011. She has finished T-10 or better in 10 of her last 20 major championship starts.
“I.K. has been playing so well,” said Paula Creamer, who was paired with Kim in the first two rounds this week. “You feel like you’re shooting a hundred over watching her, and I’m only 1 over. She’s playing so well in these conditions.”
Jonny Scott, Laura Davies’ former caddie, picked up Kim’s bag six months ago. He did so believing in her ability to bounce back.
“She’s one of the best players in the world,” Scott said. “It was windy out here today, and she was really solid from start to finish. When it’s like this, if you don’t catch a shot right, the wind can take it anywhere here. She hasn’t missed much.”
While Kim’s putting came under the microscope at Kraft Nabisco, she’s actually, statistically, one of the best putters in the women’s game. Remarkably, she led the LPGA last year in putts per greens in regulation. She has had some issues with short putts in the past, even before the short miss at Kraft Nabisco, but there are a lot of players who wouldn’t mind having her stroke.
Creamer said the strongest part of Kim's game may be her ability to make so many birdie putts of 20-25 feet.
“I think her putting is great,” Ryu said. “I don’t think she has any weaknesses.”
Scott, though, watched Kim miss a 4-footer for par at the end of Thursday’s round. Of course, for the folks bunched around the 18th green at Sebonack, it brought to mind that miss in the desert last year.
“She’s made a lot of putts this week,” Scott said. “You don’t get to 7 under at a U.S. Open without holing a lot of putts. She looks comfortable. She’s not too nervous. She’s just enjoying this.”
Two more days like this, and she might enjoy one of the biggest rebound wins in women’s golf.