By Tim Liotta
Tom Kim Is Playing His Way To the Top
Tom Kim stands so comfortably among golf's biggest names it's hard to keep in mind he's so young. So young.
Twenty-one years old. With three PGA Tour victories. Already. Two top-10 major championship finishes. Already. Ranked 11th in the world. Already.
And all Tom Kim has done is play his way to this point in his career.
No overnight sensation, Kim recorded his third PGA Tour victory on Sunday - a successful defense of his 2022 title at the Shriners Children's Open in Las Vegas, NV - just the latest accomplishment in a five-year odyssey in which along the way he's earned his every promotion out on the golf course.
Born in South Korea the son of a golf professional, Kim was ready to turn professional in 2018, at 16 years old. Less than a year later he'd won three tournaments on the Asian Development Tour, earning an automatic promotion to the Asian Tour. Then, a fourth-place finish in an 2020 Asian Tour event that was part of the Open Championship Qualifying Series earned Kim his first berth in a major championship, the 2020 Open Championship, which would be cancelled due to Covid-19.
After playing on the Korean Tour in 2020 and 2021, where he won twice, Kim won the Asian Tour's 2022 Singapore International, a victory which helped make him the leading money winner over the 20-21-22 Asian Tour season. More importantly, it earned him a berth in the 2022 Genesis Scottish Open where Tom Kim began to outplay even his own expectations.
He shot 69-67 on the weekend to finish third that week, higher than the likes of Patrick Cantlay, Tommy Fleetword and Matt Fitzpatrick.
"For me, my main focus was trying to get enough points so I could try to get to the Korn Ferry finals," said Kim who still only had status on the Asian Tour going into the Scottish Open. "I wasn't expecting a top three finish, I'm not going to lie to you. I had limited events and I was trying to make the most out of it."
His Scottish Open finish earned Kim a berth in the 2022 Open Championship, where he posted four rounds par or better and finished T47. Those two performances earned him Special Temporary Membership on the PGA Tour for the remainder of the 2021-22 season, which gave him the right to accept sponsor exemptions into PGA Tour events.
In his second start as a Temporary Member, Kim powered to a T7 finish with a final-round 63 at the Rocket Morgage Classic. The next week, he won the Wyndham Classic by five shots. Two months later, he fired 62-66 on the weekend en route to a three-shot victory at the Shiners Children's Open.
"I think those two wins, I wasn't really -- I was playing my game," Kim said after defending his Shriners title on Sunday. "I wasn't thinking about, okay, I need to win this event, I need to do this. No, I played and it happened. It happened very naturally. It happened very quick.
"I think by the end of last year, two wins on the PGA TOUR all of a sudden, ranked 13th in the world. Suddenly you feel like you're right there and you need to do something extra or something. But it really wasn't.
"I felt like I almost added a lot of pressure towards myself to perform really well this year. But really it's been a very big learning curve for me, and it's very humbling to be able to experience what I've experienced this year. That's why I feel like this third one is even sweeter."
In spite having those two victories fresh on his resume, Kim spent much of the first part of 2023 getting used to the week-to-week challenge of competing on the PGA Tour. Beginning in February, in 13 PGA Tour tournaments - the major championships and the team event in New Orleans not included - Kim failed to finish higher than T23 and missed three cuts.
"Suddenly I'm playing really firm, long, penalizing golf courses. Just the adjustment was -- it was just the adjustment factor. I got into some spots where I feel like I didn't really want to be in," Kim said. "Working with (swing coach) Chris (Como) really helped me understand more about my game."
Following a brief period working with Australian swing coach Cameron McCormick, who worked with Jordan Spieth for years, Kim began in July working with Como, who has served as a swing coach to Tiger Woods and Bryson DeChambeau.
"I've learned so much this year from Cam and even from Chris just combining everything I learned so far this year," Kim said. "Everything at the British Open really showed results-wise, but I wasn't really far off.
"Having a new perspective helped me get more comfortable with myself, and especially out here when you're not comfortable and thinking a lot, doesn't really help.
"So just kind of transitioning to Chris and just him helping me understand a little bit more was -- helped me beneficially."
Next question: "Has it been more swing or just like strategy stuff?"
"Just I didn't really make a lot of changes. It was just a step-by-step process," Kim responded. "I haven't done -- haven't made a huge difference with my golf swing. You know, a little bit of technique here and there, little bit of strategy here and there. Just everything in general ... helped a lot for me at this second part of the season."
A recap of Kim's summer of troubles would not be complete without recounting his muddy spill during the second round of the PGA Championship where he fell waist-deep into a muddy hazard.
"As soon as I went in it was kind of sketch, but I mean it's a major championship, I'm fighting for every single stroke I have, and it got dark," KIm told ESPN after the round. "Once my foot got in, there's no looking back.
"And I went full in. It got my shirt. There was one point where I sunk in. I was steady for a minute (but) I couldn't get myself out.
"So I call (Kim's caddy) Joe (Skovron), and he was saying, 'Well, if I go in, I'd sink, and then both of us aren't getting out.'
"So I had to crawl, I had to use every part of my body to get out."
To see and hear Kim's explanation, his ability to laugh at himself and the thought process that sent him into the hazard - not to mention that he'd even entertain a television interview after such a debacle - it is easy to see why CBS lead golf analyst Trevor Immelmann gave such a glowing description of Kim at last year's President's Cup.
"Tom Kim is absolutely poised as the next global superstar," said Immelman, who served as the President's Cup International Team Captain. "He has an uncanny ability to have amazing self-confidence but still be humble. He’s like a shining light. He makes you want to root for him."
Kim's other step-out-of-tour-anonymity came when in July at the Open Championship when he rolled his ankle - more mud involved - stepping off a patio where he was staying.
"After the round yesterday I got home and - where I'm staying, there is like this patio and it drops down to the grass," Kim said. "There is like half a yard of mud and my foot got caught and slipped and popped.
"So, yeah, it's a grade one tear. I'm barely walking, but it's cool how I got away with it. ... it was very close to call it off and not playing today, get home and try to see a doctor because it's pretty bruised.
"But, no, I got some tough love from my team and I was told to suck it up."
Kim rallied from his ankle injury to finish T2 at the Open Championship, which capped a major championship season in which he finished T16 at the Masters, missed the cut at the PGA, and finished T8 at the U.S. Open, results that serve as other reminders of how narrow the difference is between godo and poor results.
"The margins are really, really small. The players now - every player has a chance to win every week," Kim said after his most recent victory. "So just to - I think the biggest thing is just really kind of letting things happen, not really trying to force things. I thought earlier in the year I was trying to force it a little bit, and I even played worse because of that.
"Just really just controlling what I can control, play the way I can play. Like today, even though I had those two soft bogeys, I knew if I just played my game and just stayed in it, I was going to be there, and I felt like that's exactly what I did.
"All of the things that I've learned this year really was the result of what happened this week. I made more bogeys than I did last year, but because I was in it and I just stayed patient, and I was really just playing my own game, it was only in my head. Really, I think this week is just the result of what I've learned this whole year."
A whole year that saw Kim win again, move up to No. 11 in the Official World Golf Rankings, and post nine top-10s, including his T2 at the Open Championship.
"I mean, I had my best finish in majors this year, made TOUR Championship. You can't say it was a bad year," Kim said. "But just personally I feel like I've always expected a lot from myself, and that's why I felt like I think - I always feel I could do more. I think that's why I felt like it wasn't the best year.
"But it was still a solid year, and I've learned so much this year. Like it's been unbelievable how big the learning curve has been."
Earlier this season, after Kim played a practice round with Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, and had been paired with Rory in a featured group on Thursday and Friday, The Athletic posted a profile of Kim heading into the Masters, and Kim told writer Brendan Quinn:
“If you don’t win majors, you’re just not going to be remembered," Kim said. "It’s that straightforward. If you don’t win majors, some day, you’ll be forgotten.
"But if you win majors, you will be remembered and considered one of the greats in the game. Everyone wants to win majors, it’s just a matter of who has the guts to do it.”