Michael Kim’s languid golf swing sends yet another tee shot perfectly down the center of the fairway and soon, after his opponent hits, he walks off the tee purposefully and intently at a brisk pace. First. Always out ahead. The message seems obvious: Catch me if you can.
These days, the acceleration of Kim’s career path on the course would make the Acela Express, which races out of nearby Washington, D.C., each day, envious. A rising junior at the University of California-Berkeley, his most notable moment came at this summer’s U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., where he finished tied for 17th, the fifth-best showing by an amateur in the past 30 years at the national championship.
Kim claimed numerous accolades as a sophomore at UC-Berkeley, including a pair of player of the year honors: the Fred Haskins Award (voted on by players, coaches and members of the national media) and the Jack Nicklaus Award (from the Golf Coaches Association of America).
But the experience at the U.S. Open is undeniably at the forefront of his memory bank, and not just because it’s barely a month old. After all, he was on the first page of the leader board after birdieing four of six holes during the third round.
“I was two shots back of Charl Schwartzel after I made birdie at [No.] 15,” Kim recalled. “I was watching the leader board not to know where I was in the [championship], but it was cool to see my name next to [Luke] Donald, [Phil] Mickelson and Justin Rose. That was awesome.
“Nothing can beat the week that I had there.”
Kim, of Del Mar, Calif., admits that his showing at the Open has helped prepare him for all other competitive starts.
“It definitely makes it easier because I know that I’m not going to be under any more pressure than I was there and I’m not going play on a bigger stage than that one,” Kim said. “It kind of relaxes me a little bit and it’s a lot of pressure off when I come play these events.”
Kim has every reason to have high expectations. His rise to prominence on the amateur golf stage has been steady despite modest beginnings. Growing up in Korea, he admittedly “had no idea” what golf was for the first seven years of his life.
At age 8, it was nearly impossible not to take note of Tiger Woods, who won the 2001 Masters to become the first player to hold all four professional majors simultaneously. Soon thereafter, Kim picked up a club for the first time and continues to idolize Woods as the player who helped bring him to the game. Intentional or otherwise, some of Kim’s mannerisms on the course are eerily similar.
As Kim continues to develop, Woods’ trademark determination is pinned to his mental corkboard.
“He’s always striving to get better and better,” says Kim, who actually finished ahead of Woods at the U.S. Open. “No human being has ever played as well as he did in the year 2000, but he’s still trying to get better and better and I think that’s something everybody can learn from.”
Honing winning habits is seemingly part of Kim’s golf pedigree. Stoked by four victories in collegiate events during his sophomore year at UC-Berkeley, he was honored as the 2012-13 Golfweek/Sagarin Player of the Year and the Pac-12 Conference Golfer of the Year. Kim was also instrumental in helping Team USA register a victory over Team Europe in the Palmer Cup.
All this from a kid who was barely recruited out of Torrey Pines High School, despite helping the program to a state title in 2011. Most college golf programs had completed their recruiting and Kim’s lanky frame was a concern for some coaches, given today’s emphasis on power hitting.
“Part of it is because of my size and build. I’m skinny now but I was even skinnier back then,” Kim says. “I was hitting 235 or 240 and all the other guys were hitting it 280 and 290 yards. That was a big deal.”
Kim ultimately signed with Cal-Berkeley and his game and physique continued to take shape during his ascent. At 5-foot-10 and 150 pounds, Kim isn’t viewed as a player with eye-popping length. He’s hitting it an estimated 280 yards off the tee now, but it matters little to Kim, whose every shot is precisely planned, akin to a surgeon getting ready to operate.
“I make up for a lack of distance in accuracy,” he says. “In all honesty, it doesn’t matter how far you hit it as long as you get the ball in the hole as fast as possible.”
The game’s higher-ups have taken note. Earlier this week, the USGA’s International Team Selection Committee named him to the USA Walker Cup Team, considered one of the greatest honors an amateur can attain. The 10-player USA Team will take on their Great Britain and Ireland counterparts at the 44th renewal of the match, set for Sept. 7-8 at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton, N.Y.
“It’s truly and honor and a blessing. It’s been a goal of mine since 2011,” says Kim, who turned 20 on July 14. “To get that call is a great feeling. It’s been a great week.”
For Kim, attaining goals in the game means staying resilient, something he needed in ousting Robby Shelton IV, 17, of Wilmer, Ala., 1 up, in Friday morning’s APL quarterfinals. Kim three-putted the par-5 15th hole to fall back to all-square, but he holed a 15-yard bunker shot at the par-3 16th to regain a 1-up lead en route to victory.
After watching friend Jordan Spieth win last week’s John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour, it was impossible for Kim’s mind not to wander. Spieth and Patrick Cantlay are both in his age range – Spieth is 19 and Cantlay, the low amateur at the 2011 U.S. Open, is 21. Kim beat Spieth (and everyone else for that matter) in claiming medalist honors and helping Cal to the team title at the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational last fall.
“It motivates you when guys your same age are playing the [U.S.] Open, playing the [PGA] Tour and playing in the Walker Cup [Match],” Kim says. “Hopefully, one day I can be there and play against the best of the world.”
Andrew Blair is director of communications for the Virginia State Golf Association. He is assisting the USGA this week at the APL.