NAPLES, Fla. – A silly-season event might be just the tonic a pair of frustrated young stars need this week.
Typically, the players who parade to Tiburon Golf Club do so as a reward for successful seasons.
Kim, 26, and Villegas, 29, arrive on the heels of the worst seasons of their young careers.
Both are three-time PGA Tour winners. Both last won in 2010. Both are dynamic personalities with big games and big potential, yet both battled battered confidence and suspect they may have tried too hard.
“It has been a long couple years,” Kim said after Wednesday’s pro-am. “It has been tough, but I think I’m going to come out a better player for it.”
Villegas struck a similar tone.
“That’s the nature of the game, golf and sports,” Villegas said. “You have great years, average years, bad years. This year was, hopefully, one of the bad ones, and next year we can turn it around.”
“This format is probably the most fun you can get,” Villegas said.
Kim’s all for making the game feel fun again. He recorded a career-low two top-10 finishes this season. He slumped to 87th on the PGA Tour money list, his lowest finish in his five seasons. He finished 176th in greens in regulation, 81st in scoring.
The slide goes back directly to Kim’s thumb surgery in May 2010. After a strong start that year, with a tie for second at the Honda Classic, a third-place finish at the Masters and a tie for seventh at the Wells Fargo Championship, Kim needed surgery to repair a ligament tear in his left thumb.
After three months away, Kim made his comeback at the WGC-Bridgestone in a desperate bid to make the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He came back too soon. His thumb wasn’t ready, and his swing suffered.
Deep into that year, there was lingering pain, but, mostly, there were doubts in Kim’s head about his thumb. He couldn’t make sure passes, and an accumulation of uncertain passes damaged his confidence.
“I feel like I’m finally over the injury, mentally,” Kim said.
Kim became so frustrated this season, he took six weeks off after being eliminated from the FedEx Cup. He touched his clubs once in that time away, playing in a previously scheduled corporate outing. He said he needed the escape because, mentally, he was beating himself up something awful.
“It’s actually tougher to make cuts, or be right on the cut line on a Friday, than it is to just win a golf tournament,” Kim said. “When you’re not playing well, when you’re grinding to make pars, to make cuts, or you need a birdie on the last hole to make a cut, that’s harder than being in contention.”
Kim said that wore him out this year.
“So the month and a half I took off did wonders for me before going to Asia,” Kim said.
In his late October return at the Shanghai Masters, Kim felt refreshed. He posted four rounds in the 60s and took Rory McIlroy to a playoff before losing on the first extra hole.
“Golf is all about confidence, repetition,” Kim said. “If you continue to hit bad shots, no matter who you are, it will start to bother you. You start to try to figure a way out of the funk. Sometimes, the more you dig, the deeper the hole gets and you can’t get out of it. So that month and a half off was necessary.”
Kim arrived in Naples ready to enjoy the game again. He said his mother has helped him work on a better attitude, a better perspective in understanding golf isn’t his whole world. He says it is helping.
“Playing the PGA Tour, you forget how lucky you are,” Kim said. “I’m ready to start a new season. I’m ready to play some better golf. It’s happened before where I’ve had bad years and come back with good years.”
Villegas’ year got off to a trying start with a disqualification after the first round of the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions. The DQ came after a TV viewer called in to report seeing Villegas sweep away loose impediments as Villegas’ ball rolled back toward his feet on a chip shot.
After that, nothing went to plan, with Villegas believing he probably worked too hard and tinkered too much to get better. He said he was playing with a grip that got too strong.
“I was seeing a lot of double crosses, and that’s just not pretty,” Villegas said. “I just hit the ball badly the first half. When you start doing that, you start losing confidence, and maybe you start over-thinking, trying to change certain things that don’t necessarily need to be changed. It’s a little snowball effect.”
With just one top-10 finish deep into August, Villegas’ game began to fall into place. He made a strong FedEx Cup run. He has recorded four top 10s in his last six starts.
“I’m looking forward to next year,” Villegas said. “I’m hitting it better. I definitely have more confidence. I’m happier.”