CHARLOTTE, NC — It’s early Thursday afternoon on the practice range at Quail Hollow, and Tom Kim is doing jumping jacks.
It’s not clear why he’s doing jumping jacks. He has been warming up for the better part of an hour now, and energy has not been a concern. Kim, the International team’s self-professed “jokester,” has been bouncing off the walls since he reached the practice range, trading laughs and excited handshakes with anyone who’ll listen. Assistant captain KJ Choi stopped by in an effort to imbue a few last words of wisdom. He walked away from Kim giggling. Then came assistant captain Camilo Villegas. Same result.
Other than the jumping jacks, the warmup is flawless. Kim has a gorgeous, simple swing. His blade slices through the ground with both grace and gusto. His butter cuts could be served on sourdough.
One needn’t watch Tom Kim play golf for more than a few minutes to understand that he is bound for superstardom in today’s world of professional golf. His skills are too prodigious, his energy too infectious.
“You FEELING it yet?!” He half-yells at his new caddy, Joe Skovron, who can hardly suppress a laugh.
In a few minutes, Kim will begin the third match of the Presidents Cup alongside his fellow Korean countryman, KH Lee. Among casual golf fans, the Presidents Cup is Kim’s first opportunity to write his legacy. The youngest of eight rookies competing for the Internationals against a heavily favored American squad, Kim could force his way into the golf consciousness this week. That’s a massive opportunity and nobody, not even Kim himself, knows how he’s going to respond. Very soon now, he’ll have an answer.
But first he does 15 more jumping jacks.
Tom Kim’s arrival is still a shock.
Not just at the Presidents Cup, where the daring, fist-pumping 20-year-old has quickly found himself a beloved fixture of the International side. On the PGA Tour.
Most fans don’t remember the first time they met Tom Kim. It’s hard to blame them. When Kim walked into the press conference that marked his unofficial arrival to pro golf, he was far from the source of intrigue.
“We are setting the Asian Tour up as a powerful new force on the world golf stage,” Greg Norman, CEO of LIV Golf Investments said that day, announcing a $300 million investment in the tour on behalf of the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Later, it would become clear that LIV’s interest in the tour was driven primarily by its hopes of spawning a rival golf league, using the Asian Tour’s guaranteed world ranking points presented to soften the risk for golf’s best players.
Tom — a name he adopted from his given “Joohyung” after the children’s character “Thomas the Tank Engine” — sat directly to Norman’s left during the press conference, but he didn’t have much to say.
“I think I was there because I just won the Order of Merit on the Asian Tour,” he says now. “It was kind of a spot I needed to fill.”
As the deeply talented, multicultural face of the Asian Tour, many assumed Kim was the rival league’s first target. He won’t say whether he received an offer from Norman, but his attendance in Quail Hollow fills in many of the blanks.
“I’ve always known I wanted to play on the PGA Tour. That was the main goal for me,” Kim said Tuesday. “To be honest, [at the time of the press conference] I didn’t have any status, whether it was the Korn Ferry Tour or the PGA Tour. It’s a crazy U-turn for me.”
A U-turn that has brought him all the way to the Presidents Cup after less than six months on the PGA Tour. Of course, some of that is due to an International team ravaged by defections to LIV, including the likes of World No. 1 Cameron Smith and Joaquin Niemann in the days before the rosters were finalized. But Kim deserves some credit himself after a rookie season that saw him land a top-25 finish at the US Open, a third-place finish at the Scottish Open and, most notably, a season-ending victory at the Wyndham Championship. Just weeks after Kim clinched full status for the 2023 Tour season in Greensboro, he played his way into a Presidents Cup where, at 20 years old, he became the youngest player on either roster.
“For a guy like Tom Kim to be able to be hanging out with Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama in the team room last night, I mean, I wish you could have seen the kid’s face,” said International team captain Trevor Immelman. “It was just pure joy and excitement and anticipation for the week.”
“I can’t put into words, really, how pumped I am,” he said Tuesday, a dumbfounded smile spread across his face. “I’ve always dreamed of doing crazy fist pumps because it’s match play. So I’m really looking forward to it.”
It is difficult to pinpoint the moment when Tom the Tank Engine took over Presidents Cup week, but there is no question it happened.
The 20-year-old is the talk of the town in Charlotte, both among those on his team and those outside of it. Like on Tuesday morning, when Immelman was asked to choose a pickup basketball starting five for the Internationals.
“I kind of like little Tom Kim as a point guard,” Immelman said with a chuckle. “He’s got a fast mouth on him too, so he’s perfect for a point guard.”
Soon, Kim’s first few days around the International team had become the stuff of legend. He showed up to play in Charlotte with a Carolina Blue putter grip, a fitting nod to the region’s favorite color. After only two days together, seven of the Internationals’ 12 players voted him as the team’s biggest eater (including an emphatic vote from Tom himself). Later, a wide-eyed Kim admitted that he respects Jordan Spieth far too much to trash-talk him during competition, but Masters champ Scottie Scheffler is fair game because “he gives me a hard time.” On Thursday afternoon, Kim was the only member of the International team to beckon the crowd for more noise after his introduction on the first tee box (which responded with a few polite boos). Even, it turns out, Kim’s math skills have earned him a couple of laughs.
“We’re on 12 today, and he makes a mistake doing simple math there,” Assistant captain Camilo Villegas said. “So I looked at the kid and said, ‘Tom, is that college math?’ He looks at me and goes, ‘Dude, I didn’t even graduate from high school.’”
Kim, for his part, has no defense. He turned pro at 15, and he’s been a goofball for far longer than that. This, he says, is who he’s always been.
Success has come quickly for Kim, but ego has not followed. His personality remains joyfully unbothered by the enormity of the life before him — as it should be, for a player still 10 months away from his first legal drink. It’s as if he doesn’t realize yet what everyone around him at the Presidents Cup has already accepted as fact: soon, he won’t be a stranger to anyone.
“Ohhh, I don’t know about that,” he says when asked if he feels like he’s being noticed more. “But it would be really cool. I still have a long way to go.”
For the first time all week, Tom Kim is alone.
It’s Wednesday afternoon at the Presidents Cup, and he’s not just the last golfer standing on the practice green, he’s the last golfer for a few hundred yards in any direction. After a round in the morning and a spate of range time in the afternoon, he made it to the putting area with a head of steam. He’s been here ever since.
The problem at hand is his putting stroke, which seems to have fallen out of order. Kim is doing a “circle drill” — in which a player draws a five-foot circle around a hole with golf balls and putsts until he has made all of them in a row. Most players use this drill to practice three-footers and finish it in a matter of seconds. Kim has been here for close to half an hour.
Kim, it should be noted, is largely to blame for this endeavour. He has chosen to practice his putts towards a hole cut into the middle of a fierce slope… from six feet. His putts slide as far as they travel, zipping towards the hole at various speeds and directions, depending upon his location.
Impressively, Tom is making the majority of his putts, but he’s not making all of them, and that has him peeved.
“You’re kidding me!” He groans when one lips out to the left, ducking his head into his hands and pushing his hat over his head. Kim makes the game look effortless. It’s not.
Skovron, his new caddy, stops him.
“Not on a grade like this,” he says. “I think making half of them would be pretty good.”
Kim takes well to the coaching. He settles himself, takes a deep breath, and practices the putt one more time. This time, it lips in. A smattering of claps and hoots comes from off the green. Kim looks up, flashing a quick smile. He realizes, for the first time, there’s a crowd that’s gathered to watch him.