May 5, 2008

Kim looks comfortable in coming out party

CHARLOTTE -- Anthony Kim walked to the first tee at the Quail Hollow Club on Sunday in an unfamiliar role -- playing in the final group as the leader, by four shots, of a PGA Tour event.

He looked comfortable, liked he'd been there before, or, at least, as if he were meant to be.

Just over four hours later, when he walked onto the 18th green, the cheers building, he blew out a big breath, two-putted from 25 feet and jabbed the air with a fist pump worthy of that guy named Tiger. He had made the Wachovia Championship a laugher.

The weekend he put together at Quail Hollow was as gaudy and sparkling as his "AK" belt buckle.

He shot a final round 69 for a tournament record 16-under par, blitzing the record set last year by that Woods guy at 13-under and winning by a tournament-record five strokes. He had three bogeys in his last 36 holes and had a stretch over Saturday and Sunday of 32 holes without a bogey. Only bogeys at the 16th and 17th on Sunday kept him from all but lapping the field.

This may have been the coming out party for Kim, the Korean-American from Los Angeles who plays out of Dallas.

For four days in Charlotte, Kim was stunning.

On Sunday, he felt good.

"I thought there'd be a few more butterflies," he said, "but I felt pretty calm."

His comfort level was helped by the fact no one in the field offered a serious challenge, especially playing partner Heath Slocum, who was never in it once he three-putted for bogey at the third hole.

Only Ben Curtis, who started the day nine shots back but shot a closing 65, made any kind of noise. But he was so far back, Kim couldn't hear him. When Curtis, sporting his Carolina Panthers hat, got to 10-under through 10 holes, he was still five behind. His chances tanked with a bogey at the par-3 13th about the same time Kim was making a 15-footer for birdie at the 17th to go 16-under.

Asked if he felt like he was playing for second all day, Curtis said with a shrug:

"Well, I mean ..."

He didn't need to say more.

But what does Kim's first victory say for the future?

The next Woods?

There are similarities.

Both are products of driving parents, although Woods' story differs from Kim's. Young Tiger took what his father, Earl, had to say to heart. Kim often bristled at the advice of his father, Paul, and perhaps with good reason.

Paul Kim drove his son like a rented mule at times. He got him up for dawn workouts, refused to buy him a car. Drove him constantly. At one junior tournament, Paul Kim took the first-place trophy from his son's hands and tossed on the ground -- because he'd won with an over-par, not under-par, score.

The pushing drove a wedge between Kim and his father that wasn't removed until the last few months.

When Kim decided on a college, he picked Oklahoma in part to get away from his father. But the rebel in him was still in his golf bag, and it led to flare-ups with his college coach. He turned pro after his junior year.

As the youngest player on the tour last year, after finishing first at Tour Qualifying School, Kim won more than $2 million but no tournaments. He admitted he didn't take the game as seriously as he should, didn't practice enough, didn't have focus.

"I was used to winning a lot and having come out here my first year and not won, that was the best thing for me," Kim said on Saturday, after his third-round 66 gave him command of the tournament.

He also admitted his attitude is about 180 degrees from where it was a year ago.

"I can't even tell you," he said, when asked how much a difference there is. "If I didn't hit a good shot, I felt like my life was over. It's hard to play golf that way, hard to do anything that way."

Now, he understands how good he's got it. He's 22, with a silk-smooth swing, nerves made of titanium, a laser-like putting stroke and the will to get better.

"I want to see how good I can be," he said.

Sounds a lot like that Tiger guy.

He could at least be the next player to try to challenge the best golfer in the world.

Or he could be Sergio Garcia, who came on the scene with the same hype but has been, so far, a colossal flop as a challenger to Woods.

"He's got talent," Robert Allenby said. "When you're that young, you've got to make the most of it. Once you get a bit older, that's when the brain starts thinking too much and that's when you get in the way of yourself."

There are no guarantees Kim will approach Woods' greatness, no guarantee he'll win a second tournament, much less the 64 total and 13 majors Tiger already owns.

Although some suggest Kim's swing is better than Tiger's when Tiger was 22, the swing is just one part of the game.

Woods reworked his swing, then proved thinking the game, understanding the moment, being able to play against yourself rather than lesser competition, are all just as important as a great backswing and follow through.

Kim learned some of that last year, when he didn't win and didn't practice.

"I got slapped in the face," he said. "That helped me."

By the time Woods was 22, he'd won six times on the PGA Tour, including his first Masters, so Kim is a few wins behind.

Sunday may have been the first step for Kim in the Tiger chase.

"That walk up 18," he said, "was the best feeling of my entire life. The chills were going up my spine. I want to recreate that as many times as possible."

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