News & Opinion

Players’ champion Kim joins elite company at age 21

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Sean Foley was out on the water, enjoying a day of boating with his family in central Florida, when the golf instructor's phone rang late Sunday afternoon.

What he learned over the next few minutes ranked as the happiest of news, though it wasn’t particularly surprising, considering the pedigree of the player in question.

With his phone turned off, Foley had no idea that one of his newest pupils, rising South Korean star Si Woo Kim, was cruising to a victory on one of the biggest events in golf, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

After Foley excitedly listened to the last two holes of play-by-play via phone as Kim held on for a steely, three-shot victory with a bogey-free 69, it was hard to suppress his admiration. Kim had finished 10 under, holding off runners-up Louis Oosthuizen and Ian Poulter to become, at age 21, the youngest Players winner in history.

“He’d be a junior in college right now,” Foley said. “I’m not sure I had any idea how good he was until this week.”

Join the club.

Kim, who will turn 22 on June 28, is nearly two years younger than the previous-youngest champion at Sawgrass, 2004 winner Adam Scott. Kim became only the fourth player in the past 25 years to win two PGA Tour events before turning 22, joining Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth.

In other words, very serious company.

“Today was a very happy day,” Kim said through an interpreter. “I didn’t expect that I could be champion at this young age.”

He first served notice that he was a prodigy of sorts at age 17, when he earned his PGA Tour card via Qualifying School while still in high school. But because card-holders must be 18, he missed half of the season and struggled in his limited starts after his birthday. He spent a couple of years on the developmental Web.com Tour, then played as a rookie last year on the PGA Tour, winning the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., in August.

Kim posted a performance that belied his age on Sunday. Every player on the final Sawgrass leaderboard recorded at least two bogeys in the final round. Remarkably, Kim had zero, despite missing 10 greens.

“He’s like the Korean Ballesteros,” Foley said.

After starting the final round two shots back, Kim took the lead for good with a birdie on the seventh hole as Poulter and Co. failed to throw much of a scare at him. Kim proved to be unflappable down the stretch, scrambling as though there weren’t a five-year exemption and $1.9 million on the table at day’s end.

“He’s so mature for 21,” said his caddie, Mark Carens, an American. “When he gets in the hunt, he’s fearless.

“I think he’s a superstar anyway, but I think after this, everybody else will see it, too.”

Perhaps so, but few would have predicted this week’s windfall. Kim entered the week ranked 110th on the money list and 128th in FedEx Cup points. But at that age, being a paragon of consistency might be asking a bit much.

“Whenever he was in trouble, he got up and down,” said Oosthuizen, Kim’s playing competitor. “He was just so calm today. He played like someone who has been doing this for four, five, six years.”

Foley, who began working with Kim during the West Coast Swing, recalls watching him play over the past couple of years and shaking his head at the skill level of such a young player, who had been coached previously only by his father.

“Every time I saw him, I thought, That kid’s on tour at that age? That’s crazy,” Foley said, laughing. “He should be a junior at Oklahoma State, or Florida or UCLA. Think about that.”

Steve Elling has covered golf for the Orlando Sentinel, CBSSports.com and numerous other global print and online outlets. Email: ellingink@gmail.com; Twitter: @EllingYelling