NEWTOWN SQUARE, Pa. – Sometimes it’s just the best player winning. This week is not unlike the previous, not unlike the next. No defining shot, nor moment. Just someone playing better than everyone else for 72 holes.
Only, now, Sei Young Kim can call herself a major champion.
Kim won the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship on Sunday. It was her 11th career LPGA victory, but her first major title.
“I'm so excited. I'm actually, really hiding my tears at the moment,” Kim said after a flurry of congratulations, trophy posing and interviews. “It was a major that I really wanted, so very excited and happy that I got it done.”
The 27-year-old South Korean remained stoic in the aftermath, the finished product of controlled brilliance. Fairways, greens and more birdies (23) than anyone else in the field at Aronimink Golf Club.
She kept well hidden the pressure she had been feeling, not just this week, but for several years. She might have hid it too well.
"I guess I was unconsciously nervous before going to sleep [Saturday night], so I set my alarm 30 minutes later than I wanted to, and I found out when I left this morning," Kim said.
That led to a late arrival to the course, but Kim didn't let it bother her. Winning a major had been her dream since she saw Se Ri Pak capture this championship, 22 years ago. And, she felt, this was her time.
Of course to make it her time, she was going to have to defeat another South Korean legend in Inbee Park. The same Inbee Park who, five years ago, beat Kim in this event at Westchester Country Club, shooting 68 that Sunday to Kim's 71.
Park shot 65 this time around and never got within a stroke of Kim’s lead.
“Sei Young was just really untouchable, and she played really, really good golf today,” said Park, who finished solo second, five back at 9 under. “I'd like to congratulate her. She had a great day. That's how a champion plays a final round, so it was good to see that.”
It was a record final round for Kim, a closing 63 that matched the best in this championship's history. It was a 266 (14 under) total that established a new mark.
Paul Fusco could see it coming. He’s caddied for Kim for six years.
“In the past, we’d come to a major and she’d be like, ‘Ah, I really want this,’ which is great and normal. But you can’t play that way,” said Fusco, who also won his first major as a caddie. “This was the first week she just relaxed and let come to her. Owned it.”
With 10 tour victories, entering this event, Kim was the only active player with more than five LPGA titles, but none majors. (For the record, Jessica Korda (5) and Minjee Lee (5) have now won the most LPGA events without a major, among active players.)
Easily overlooked, however, was the impressive nature of her wins.
Her first tour victory came in a playoff during her rookie season. Her second came after chipping in to force a playoff with Park and then defeating her by holing out from 154 yards on the first extra hole.
She won the 2018 Thornberry Creek event with an LPGA-record, 31-under-par total. That was four shots lower than when she won the Founders Cup by five.
Last year, she made a winding 25-footer on the final hole to capture the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship and its $1.5 million prize.
The credentials were in check. But would her nerves be over the back nine?
Kim played the outward half in 3 under on Sunday to stay three clear of Park. But, including the final round, she was 10 under on the front nine, even par on the back.
"It was just, keep going," Fusco said of Kim's approach over the final nine holes. "She was confident. There was no guesswork."
Try as she did, the best Park could do was get within two of Kim, when Park birdied the 12th. But Kim responded by making birdie at the 13th. And at the 14th. And at the 16th. And at the 17th.
“I was three back [to start the round], so I thought 65 will definitely do it. I was thinking maybe, like, 5 to 6 under is a good number to kind of post and just see what happens. But, obviously, Sei Young was just much better than anyone else out there today.
“I'd make birdies, she makes birdies. I'd make birdies, she makes birdies. And I was like, come on.”
Kim wasn’t going to play passively on the back nine and hope that the trophy would greet her. She was going to dash to the finish and make sure no one could catch her.
“I did not look at the scoreboard once,” said Kim. “I knew that Inbee was going to play great, but I had to just focus on my game, one shot at a time.
“I didn't want to play like this was my final round, but just stick to my momentum that I've played all week, so that worked out.”
Sunday was unlike any other day for Kim and everyone else. The leading threesome teed off 33 minutes ahead of the final group, in order to hit NBC Sports’ noon-2 p.m. ET coverage window. And it worked. Kim’s group wrapped up just in time, and at 1:51 p.m., Kim was no longer the best player in women’s golf without a major.
“I dreamt of winning a major championship after seeing Se Ri Pak winning the first one for our country,” Kim said. “To be honest with you, I didn't know it was going to take this long.”
After putting out and shooing away the monkey from her back, Kim hugged Fusco and began to walk off the green. There were officials and volunteers cheering, with no fans allowed on site because of COVID-19 protocols.
The entire finish was oddly subdued. Kim hit her final approach shot 12 feet past the hole and there wasn’t a single clap, just the first drops of rain.
She began her walk up the 18th fairway to silence, until she finally reached the green.
After two putts to secure a very large, very shiny major trophy, there was no champagne celebration on the green – there were still players who had to finish. That had to wait until she was clear of the playing area.
As she had done all week, Kim kept her composure. The joy and relief weren't laid bare. She tried to verbalize it, but any overflow or excess remained hidden with those tears.
Seems that's being saved for the ones who have been with her the longest on this journey, with whom she spoke via a brief video conference after her life-changing performance.
“I think the thing I want to do most when I return home,” Kim said, “is hug my parents and my family.”