PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Doug Ghim knows what you’re thinking. He’s in a tie for third at The Players Championship, three shots back, and you don’t have the slightest idea who he is. To be fair, some of the fans here at TPC Sawgrass didn’t either. A few actually confused him with his third-round playing partner, Sungjae Im.
At least Im should be a known commodity – a PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, a Tour winner, a Masters runner-up, a top-20 player. Ghim is none of those things. He’s a fourth-year pro still trying to find his way. He’s 257th in the world rankings, sandwiched between Lee Hodges and Chase Seiffert. Though he was a decorated amateur, he’s managed only one top-10 in 41 career Tour starts. With a chance to win last week at Bay Hill, he closed with 81. If not for the pandemic, he’d be gearing up for next week’s Korn Ferry Tour event.
“I have the same amount of chance as everybody else,” said Ghim, who despite landing a spot in the penultimate group Sunday drew only a trio of reporters for his post-round presser.
“I’m sure there’s odds that say other players have a better chance, but at the end of the day, there’s no defense being played on my ball more than anybody else’s, so if I go and play the way that I know how to play, and if I play the way that I did today, I don’t see why I couldn’t win.”
The top 7 on the leaderboard feature household names with a combined 105 professional wins, two major championship titles and countless Ryder Cup appearances, and so Ghim was right about the odds – he’s third on the leaderboard but seventh on the odds boards, at +1800. He knows he’s a flier, just fortunate to be competing for one of the biggest prizes in golf.
Ghim, 24, was a former All-American at Texas who lost a heartbreaker in the 2017 U.S. Amateur final and was one of the feel-good stories of the ’19 Korn Ferry Tour Finals, when he sank a par putt on the final hole to earn one of the last available cards. His only (shortened) season on the big tour was unproductive, finishing 184th in FedExCup points, which normally would have sent him back down to the minors. The Tour gave him and the other struggling members a lifeline, extending membership another year because of the pandemic.
That allowed Ghim the freedom to work with a new team: swing coach Drew Steckel, putting instructor Paul Vizank and mental coach Jared Tendler. Heck, Ghim even hired a nutritionist. During his rookie season he noticed a massive disparity between his morning and afternoon scoring average, and he often felt jittery on the first tee. “Teeing off at 2 p.m. with no fans and with the Monday qualifier, you have to create your own energy,” Ghim said. So, he cut out processed sweets, eats every two hours and relies on protein bars and shakes. Now, his early and late scoring averages are nearly identical.
The other parts of his game saw an uptick, too. He changed drivers. He cleaned up his iron play. He started making more putts. Ranked 155th in the Tour’s strokes-gained total statistic last season, he’s now 33rd, with a couple of encouraging showings, including a tie for fifth at The American Express in January.
The top of The Players leaderboard is filled with players with improved perspectives. Turning 48 next month, Lee Westwood is living his best life, unconcerned with outcomes and enjoying the on-course presence of his fiancée/caddie. Jon Rahm is about to become a father for the first time. After overcoming alcoholism, Chris Kirk isn’t living and dying with every shot anymore.
Ghim’s biggest advantage Sunday isn’t found on a stats page, either.
“Part of what’s daunting is you understand how hard it is to put yourself in this position,” he said, “but if I want to dream and be as big of a player as I want to be, then I have to believe that I’ll be back here at one point. If it goes well, great. But if it doesn’t, then I’ll use this as fuel to get back here.”
Ghim took the solo lead Saturday after recording one of only five birdies on the 14th hole. If he was nervous, he didn’t show it. His hands certainly weren’t shaking as he played pick-up sticks when his ball found the pine straw on 16. “Surgery!” he joked to his caddie, Micah Fugitt, extracting a few loose pieces around his ball.
“He was very, very comfortable out there today,” Fugitt said. “He was having a blast and even mentioned a couple of times how much fun he was having.”
Wasn’t that surprising, for someone in his position?
“Not at all,” he said. “I think he’s just getting more comfortable. I expect him to do pretty well tomorrow, actually.”
It’s unlikely many others will share that optimism. Westwood is a grizzled veteran who has won all over the globe. Bryson DeChambeau’s brawny game is threatening to overwhelm the Tour. Justin Thomas has won 13 Tour events and is ranked No. 3 in the world. In the richest tournament in golf, on one of the most demanding layouts, they aren’t going to be worried about Doug Ghim – and that’s OK with him.
“I feel like I’m capable of winning,” he said. “I’m not going to say that I am. I’m not even going to say that I like my chances. But I know that I can do it. I know that it’s possible.”