[PHOTO: Getty Images]
A comment by Jordan Spieth, arguably one of the most articulate and thoughtful athletes on the PGA Tour, was probably lost amid the noise that has been surrounding the professional game in recent months. It was prophetic and if proven true, may well be a game-changer for Asian golf.
During the CJ Cup in South Carolina recently, the three-time Major champion was asked about Korean phenomenon Tom Kim, who has achieved instant stardom by sandwiching a stunning pair of PGA Tour victories with a standout Presidents Cup debut at Quail Hollow that International Team captain Trevor Immelman hailed Kim as “a tremendous gift to our sport”.
Spieth somewhat likened the rapid rise of the 20-year-old to the Korean wave of success on the LPGA Tour, which began more than two decades ago, and was coincidentally sparked by another 20-year-old then. Se-ri Pak, a World Golf Hall of Famer, has for long been credited for changing the face of women’s golf with her brilliance, charm and spectacular emergence during the late 1990s which drove Korean women to dominate on the LPGA Tour.
“Got an unbelievably bright future, as [do] a lot of these young Koreans,” Spieth said of Tom Kim during the CJ Cup, which was launched as Korea’s lone PGA Tour event in 2017 but has since been staged in the US due to the challenges of COVID-19.
“Seems like right now, you have this progression that you’ve seen on the LPGA Tour over the last 10 years is starting to happen on the PGA Tour, with young and talented Korean players that are coming out and not afraid to win at an early age. Si Woo [Kim] might be one of the most talented individuals in the game of golf and it’s always been fun to watch him play. So I think the future’s really bright.”
As of Monday, three Koreans – Tom Kim (14th), Sungjae Im (20th) and K.H. Lee (37th) – are ranked inside the world’s top 50. Si Woo Kim, a three-time tour winner including becoming the youngest Players Championship winner in 2017, is ranked 74th. Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, who has long been Asia’s top-ranked golfer, sits in 19th position and appeared in the Presidents Cup alongside the Korean quartet.
Whether Tom Kim’s meteoric ascend will create a new momentum for the men’s game in Korea and across Asia, as Pak once did for women’s golf, is yet to be seen but there are parallels and early indication to suggest another boom may well occur in the Far East.
The first two LPGA tournaments which Pak won in 1998 were amazingly Major championships and of historic proportions. When she claimed the LPGA Championship, she was only 20 and six weeks old. Later that year, she became the youngest US Women’s Open champion. In contrast, Kim’s two titles on the PGA Tour may not be Major wins but he earned his place in the history books by becoming the second youngest golfer ever to win twice on the PGA Tour before turning 21, and was even younger than a certain Tiger Woods in doing so.
“It’s crazy,” said Kim of his life-changing wins. “Beating Tiger is, I mean, it’s amazing for me. I’ve just got to keep playing well and hopefully I’ll have a lot more in the bag. I mean, I’m playing on the PGA Tour as a 20-year-old. I’m a five-year-old at Disneyland, for sure.”
Rory McIlroy, the 2022 FedExCup champion, is among the many who have joined the Tom Kim Fan Club and is confident the youngster will enjoy an illustrious career in the US. The Northern Irishman, however, warned of early comparisons to Woods, who has been the needle for professional golf for the past 25 years.
“Look, over the last 50 years there’s only been one other player to come out and win twice before his 21st birthday, so he’s made a really good start. But, you know, we don’t need to make comparisons quite yet, just let him turn into the person he’s going to be and I think that will be good enough to have a hell of a career.”
Kim’s exploits have seen TV ratings in Korea enjoying spikes. When he won the Shriners Children’s Open in October, ratings were up in comparison to other Korean male winners and the tour’s media partner, JTBC Digital’s viewership registered record figures, while the re-airing of the final round action posted the highest viewership ever among all other re-airs from the past two seasons. In short, Tom Kim was moving the needle in Korea, and broadcasters believe the popularity gap between the men and women’s golf was narrowing.
More importantly, Kim is also moving his peers with his infectious personality and charisma, aside from a terrific knack for winning.
“Tom’s like the Energizer bunny, just keeps going. Although he’s a star already, I think he’s going to be a superstar soon,” said countryman K.H. Lee, who partnered Kim to a foursomes win over Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns at the Presidents Cup. “He’s got great energy. Although he’s young, he brings a lot of positive vibe and he’s got leadership.”
Aside from the Korean quartet who featured in the International team, Byeong-Hun An, once a top-50 player in the world, and rookie S.H. Kim have also forced their way onto the PGA Tour from the Korn Ferry Tour. Through the Past Champions category, Sung Kang, Seung-yul Noh and Sangmoon Bae, all in their 30s, will also fly the Korean flag, making it the nation with the highest number of members from an Asian country.
The positive tide is spurring other Asian aspirants to shoot for the stars too, as the likes of Chinese Taipei’s Kevin Yu, and China’s Carl Yuan and Marty Zecheng Dou feel they too can create their own moments on the PGA Tour.
Dou, who was 21 when he made his tour debut in 2018, said: “Tom is only 20 years old and what he has achieved is something I cannot even imagine when I was 20. He is a good example for junior golfers. His wins and confidence make him so competitive. For me, it means there is pressure as there are many great young players out on tour now.”
Trevor Immelman thoroughly enjoyed being in a front-row seat watching Kim strut his magic at Quail Hollow as the young Korean emerged as the International team’s unlikely talisman with his bravado, fearless attitude and wild celebrations. One particular moment, that will forever be replayed at every Presidents Cup, stood out when Kim set up the winning birdie in a memorable fourball triumph with Si Woo Kim over Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele on the Saturday afternoon.
“He has an ability to be a global superstar, this kid. We’ve seen he has the game. But what I’ve learned about his personality and his heart and what he stands, man, I am a huge fan,” said the South African. “I thought something that was so cool on the final hole… he’s about 240 yards out. He’s probably 60 yards behind his opponents. He’s over the ball. I look back, I see the who’s who of American golf in golf carts behind him. I see Thomas, I see Spieth, I see Finau, I see Homa, I see Morikawa, all of them sitting on carts 15 yards from him. And this kid pures a 2-iron to 10 feet and makes the putt. To me, that’s impressive stuff.”
No one, though, will take away the impact that K.J. Choi had created in 2000 when he became the first Korean golfer to earn a PGA Tour card and subsequently won an astounding eight times to jointly hold the record for most victories by an Asian golfer. As the lone Korean on the PGA Tour then, Choi faced numerous challenges including the language barrier, loneliness and even food options. Now into his 50s and competing on PGA Tour Champions, he stands proud seeing a new generation of young stars plying their trade with success on the world’s pre-eminent golf circuit.
“Twenty-five years ago, many Korean people go there, to America, and they can’t beat anybody. English is so bad, and hitting ball is not too good, and a little different,” Choi said in his self-taught English. “Now it’s the mindset, OK, K.J., he did it. We can go. It’s possible. Now they’re practising. I’m very proud of my younger players.”
Y.E. Yang will forever hold his distinguished place in history as Asia’s first male Major champion after a memorable PGA Championship triumph over Woods in 2009, while Hideki Matsuyama has since emulated the Major feat with his Masters success in 2021 that sparked Matsuyama-mania in Japan. Now, the race is on as to who will become the first Asian to win the prestigious season-long prize, the FedEx Cup, and also become Asia’s first world No.1.
Kim has hinted those would be his goals in the coming years.
“I haven’t achieved the goals that I’ve wanted yet. The two wins and playing on the PGA Tour is just one of those steps. There’s always alternate goals that you want to achieve and I’m just working towards that and these are just stepping stones. I’m grateful for what I have now, but I still have a lot what I want to do and I want to accomplish.”
The writer is senior director, marketing and communications – APAC, for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.