| Fea­ture – Si Woo Kim

As the de­fend­ing PLAY­ERS cham­pion, the 22-year-old South Korean aims to be­come the first re­peat cham­pion at TPC Saw­grass, writes Chris Cox.

HK Golfer - - Contents - By Chris Cox

As the de­fend­ing PLAY­ERS cham­pion, the 22-yearold South Korean aims to be­come the first re­peat cham­pion at TPC Saw­grass.

Nos­tal­gia lit­ters the cham­pi­ons’ din­ing room at TPC Saw­grass, where framed por­traits of Si Woo Kim adorn dark wood walls and

of his high­est achieve­ment sit proudly atop man­tel­pieces.

Fond mem­o­ries of the 22-year-old’s tri­umph at THE PLAY­ERS Cham­pi­onship re­main fresh inside the doors to this ex­clu­sive room, not far from the Sta­dium Course, where he won the event in stun­ning fash­ion last May. The mem­o­ries all came rush­ing back to the South Korean when he re­turned ear­lier this spring to the site of his win.

“It’s my first time (com­ing back) since lift­ing up the tro­phy last year,” he said. “Com­ing back to this course has been so amaz­ing. To see my pic­tures up on the wall, to drive up to this course, it brings back a lot of mem­o­ries.”

Kim was the youngest win­ner in PLAY­ERS’ his­tory when he cap­tured the 2017 event at age 21. But he doesn’t look much like a pupil these days. He’s back at the Ponte Ve­dra Beach, Florida, on this day to un­veil his sig­na­ture TPC Saw­grass menu item - Korean bar­beque short ribs - and do­nate his cham­pi­onship-winning driver to the club, along­side other past win­ners’ clubs like Jack Nick­laus, Phil Mick­el­son and Tiger Woods.

Now, the two-time PGA TOUR win­ner looks ev­ery bit the part of a sea­soned veteran. “My first win at (2016) Wyn­d­ham (Cham­pi­onship), I was ac­tu­ally very ner­vous, be­cause I didn't have any ex­pe­ri­ence winning,” he re­called. “But en­ter­ing PLAY­ERS, I was go­ing for my sec­ond win, so I felt a lit­tle more com­fort­able in that sense. But go­ing into that sea­son, I was bat­tling back in­jury, and I was feel­ing ner­vous just be­ing at the fifth ma­jor.”

That nag­ging back in­jury was merely one part of Kim’s chal­leng­ing ad­just­ment to life on the PGA TOUR.

The Seoul, South Korea, na­tive not only strug­gled to get ac­cus­tomed to ev­ery­day life in

the United States. He also had to re-earn his TOUR card af­ter miss­ing the cut in each of his first six starts in 2013 - which came af­ter he al­ready de­ferred his de­but for six months be­cause he wasn’t yet old enough to com­pete (the PGA TOUR has a min­i­mum mem­ber­ship age limit of 18 years old, and Kim earned his card at 2012’s qual­i­fy­ing school at just 17 years, five months). Add in that re­cur­ring back prob­lem last sea­son - which plagued him not only dur­ing his PLAY­ERS win but in the weeks that fol­lowed - and it’s ev­i­dent his early years on TOUR have been any­thing but easy.

“I think com­ing to the States, and liv­ing in the States, has helped me re­ally ma­ture as a per­son,” he said. “The first cou­ple of years I had a re­ally hard time ad­just­ing. I was re­ally lonely a lot of the time, but I think liv­ing here and fight­ing through that has helped me re­ally ma­ture and grow as a per­son.

“I think the food was a tough part for me, and also trans­porta­tion,” he added. “In Korea, when you’re done (play­ing) you drive, but here, since the coun­try is so big, you have to fly ev­ery­where. So, for me, that was re­ally dif­fi­cult, and just not hav­ing a lot of friends here.”

Now, more than five years later, his steady growth and ma­tu­rity both on the course and off ap­pear to be on full dis­play. He earned back his card af­ter two solid sea­sons on the Web.com Tour - which in­cluded a win at the 2015 Stone­brae Clas­sic. Kim then rein­tro­duced him­self to the PGA TOUR with au­thor­ity in 2016. His rookie sea­son saw him ad­vance all the way to the FedExCup Play­offs, be­com­ing one of just two rook­ies to earn a spot in the TOUR Cham­pi­onship, join­ing even­tual PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year Emil­iano Grillo.

Kim’s rookie sea­son was high­lighted, of course, by his win at in Greens­boro, which came, thanks in part, to a course-record, 10-un­der 60 in the sec­ond round. That 60 in­cluded eight birdies and an ea­gle. His 21-un­der 259 tied the course record and made him the youngest player to win on TOUR that sea­son.

With first-win jitters out of the way, Kim notched his sec­ond vic­tory the fol­low­ing year at THE PLAY­ERS, where he once again be­came that tour­na­ment’s youngest win­ner. He got up and down 10 times dur­ing a bo­gey-free Sun­day round, went 16-for-22 in scram­bling for the week and boldly opted to use his driver off the deck on the par-4 14th, 270 yards from the hole. That shot landed on the front part of the green, help­ing him make par.

The win made Kim one of only four play­ers in the last 25 years with two tour­na­ment ti­tles be­fore his 22nd birth­day, join­ing Woods, Ser­gio Gar­cia and Jor­dan Spi­eth.

“I was very proud of Si Woo, to see how he was fo­cused and kept calm through­out the tour­na­ment,” said fel­low South Korean K.J. Choi, an idol of Kim’s and the 2011 PLAY­ERS cham­pion. “I re­ally saw the bright fu­ture of Korean golf, to see a young guy like Si Woo win the PLAY­ERS Cham­pi­onship. I was re­ally proud of him.”

It was Choi who aided Kim in his path to vic­tory in Ponte Ve­dra Beach, as he pro­vided valu­able in­sight into the Sta­dium Course lay­out dur­ing prac­tice, be­fore shar­ing his own ex­pe­ri­ence and emo­tions of be­ing atop the

leader­board ahead of Kim’s fi­nal round. It’s no sur­prise, then, that the 47-year-old was one of the first to reach out to the bur­geon­ing star fol­low­ing his vic­tory.

“K.J. ac­tu­ally gave me a call af­ter I won THE PLAY­ERS, and he con­grat­u­lated me that way,” Kim re­called. “It’s such an hon­our and an amaz­ing feel­ing to share that with an­other Korean, to have two Kore­ans win this tour­na­ment.

“When I went back to THE CJ CUP, I brought the tro­phy back to Korea, and we took a nice pic­ture to­gether. Go­ing for­ward, I hope to win more tour­na­ments for Korea. It’s just been an hon­our to share that with K.J.”

Choi and Kim re­main the lone South Kore­ans to win THE PLAY­ERS, and both will take their shot at a re­turn to the win­ner’s cir­cle May 8-13 at TPC Saw­grass. Any ti­tle de­fence will not come easy. No PGA TOUR player has ever won The PLAY­ERS in con­sec­u­tive years.

“I ac­tu­ally heard that af­ter I won last year,” he said. “Some­one told me that there hadn’t been any back-to-back cham­pi­ons. I’ve no­ticed a lot of cham­pi­ons that come back don’t play well. I would like to change that, and I’m pre­par­ing hard to come back and de­fend my ti­tle this year.”

Kim be­lieves the pres­sure of high ex­pec­ta­tions fol­low­ing THE PLAY­ERS hin­dered him late last sea­son and early this year, as ev­i­denced by the mixed bag of re­sults thus far for the now-22-year-old. He had a trio of top-10 fin­ishes, fin­ish­ing third at the OHL Clas­sic at Mayakoba, 10th at the Sen­try Tour­na­ment of Cham­pi­ons and tied for ninth at the World Golf Cham­pi­onships-Dell Tech­nolo­gies Match Play in late-March. But he has fin­ished no higher than 35th in any other start. He’s cur­rently 49th in the FedExCup Stand­ings and 50th in the Of­fi­cial World Golf Rank­ing.

Sound fa­mil­iar?

“En­ter­ing last year, I no­ticed that all of the play­ers in the field were ranked higher than me,” he said, laugh­ing.

Kim will carry an air of con­fi­dence with him into this year’s PLAY­ERS Cham­pi­onship. He un­der­stands how to nav­i­gate the vaunted Sta­dium Course, has ex­pe­ri­enced the adren­a­line that comes with a Sun­day round atop the leader­board and now knows what it feels like to re­turn as a cham­pion.

He faces a big test as all the TOUR’s big guns - Dustin John­son, Justin Thomas, Rory McIl­roy, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Wat­son, Ja­son Day, Phil Mick­el­son and Patrick Reed - have al­ready won tour­na­ments this sea­son.

It has all the mak­ings of a re­peat per­for­mance. “My shot-mak­ing has been great, my putting has been great, and it’s given me a lot of con­fi­dence in my game,” he said. “I know the short game is very im­por­tant at this course and this tour­na­ment, so I’m go­ing to go in with a lot of con­fi­dence and just work hard on my game.”

That con­fi­dence has al­ways been a work-in-progress since he first burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 2012. And with all the ad­ver­sity he faced giv­ing way to new­found ma­tu­rity, he be­lieves he’s po­si­tioned him­self for a long ca­reer in the United States.

“I just need to eat Korean food,” he said, laugh­ing.

Si Woo Kim was the youngest win­ner in PLAY­ERS’ his­tory when he cap­tured the 2017 event at age 21

K.J. Choi (right) and Si Woo Kim re­main the lone South Kore­ans to win THE PLAY­ERS

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