The sightings have the ring of myth. One night he is at his favorite bar in Dallas, So & So's, sitting in the usual corner booth ordering bottles of Patron for a small entourage. Then he is in a penthouse at the Dallas Ritz-Carlton, playing a private, big-money card game. Next thing you know, he is on the range at the Madison Club in La Quinta, Calif., or hitting balls at TPC Craig Ranch outside Dallas. Then he is vacationing in Belize with a comely companion. Or beachcombing in Santa Barbara. Or at Costco in La Quinta with hair grown down to the middle of his back.
Anthony Kim has become golf's yeti, an elusive figure who is the source of endless conjecture. What we know for sure is that Kim, 29, has not teed it up at a PGA Tour event in more than 28 months. Once considered the future of U.S. golf, he is now estranged from the game that brought him fame and fortune. His handlers at IMG rarely speak to him. In April, golfchannel.com asked Kim's agent, Clarke Jones, about his client's whereabouts. The best Jones could come up with? "He's not living under a bridge, he's not living in a box." The players on Tour wonder if they will ever cross paths with Kim again.
"What have you heard about him?" asks Phil Mickelson, a onetime mentor. "We used to text back and forth, but I haven't had any contact with him in, oh, a year and a half."
Says Colt Knost, probably Kim's closest friend on Tour, "We were really tight, but I haven't seen that much of him lately -- I don't even have a number for him anymore. It's no secret I like to go out around Dallas. People used to always say to me, 'Hey, Anthony was in here last night.' I haven't heard that in months. It's like he's hiding out."
In some circles, Kim has become golf's Voldemort -- a name that dare not be spoken. According to Knost, Kim played a casual round this spring with journeyman Casey Wittenberg. Approached at a Web.com event in July, Wittenberg recoiled at the mere mention of Kim's name. "I'm not going to comment," Wittenberg said. "He's a great friend of mine. Sorry, I know you're just doing your job."
Kim's mysterious disappearance has left a void on Tour, to which he brought a much-needed swagger. His first year in the big leagues was 2007, and as a 23-year-old Ryder Cup rookie at Valhalla in '08 he was given the freighted task of leading off in the Sunday singles. "I felt like he was our team leader," says U.S. captain Paul Azinger. "He was an emotional juggernaut. His enthusiasm was infectious. He wanted to go out there and take somebody down. And he did." Kim's 5-and-4 thrashing of Sergio García remains the signature moment of his career, and it helped propel the U.S. to its only Ryder Cup victory since 1999. Beginning on Sept. 26, the underdog Americans will need a similar spark when they take on Europe at Gleneagles in Perthshire, Scotland. Kim could have been the Yankee McIlroy, a young superstar who would anchor his team for years. "His absence is definitely felt," says Mickelson, who paired with Kim to win 1½ points at Valhalla. "The AK of 2008 was so impressive. He had guts. He wasn't afraid of anyone or anything. He had every shot, and he just kept coming, making birdie after birdie."
Kim's hyperaggressive play carried him to two big-time victories on Tour in 2008 -- at Congressional and Quail Hollow -- as he finished sixth on the money list with $4.7 million. At the '09 Masters he made a record 11 birdies during a second-round 65, and the next year he nearly stole the green jacket, going birdie, birdie, birdie, eagle, birdie on the back nine on Sunday before he ran out of holes and settled for third place, four shots behind Mickelson. But even then Kim was battling an injury to his left thumb, which was operated on a month after Augusta. He struggled to regain his form in '11, cracking only two top 10s while struggling with tendinitis in his left wrist, which he said was the result of compensating to protect his thumb. The injuries kept coming. In May 2012 he ruptured his left Achilles tendon while running on a beach in San Diego. Kim had surgery the following month, and his self-imposed exile began.
No IMG staffer would comment for this story, but the party line is that Kim is still injured and expected to return to the Tour someday. This is refuted by a close friend of Kim's in Dallas who watched him hit balls recently. (Kim declined numerous interview requests from SI, and his comrade would speak only anonymously, saying, "He'd be f------ livid if he knew I was talking to you.") "AK's not injured," says the friend. "He can play, he can walk. His swing looks good, the strike sounds solid, his ball flight is good. His physical health is not the issue."
So what is? The answer very well may lie in an insurance policy Kim has against a career-ending injury. An IMG source pegged its value at $10 million, tax-free. Kim's friend, who has had financial discussions with him, says, "It's significantly north of that. Not quite 20, but close. That is weighing on him, very much so. He's trying to weigh the risk of coming back. The way he's phrased it to me is, 'If I take one swing on Tour, the policy is voided.'"
Assuming the friend's figure is accurate, Kim would have to earn some $35 million on and off the course to match the amount he would collect by never playing golf again. (That's factoring in taxes; agent's commissions; private jets; diamond-encrusted belt buckles; salaries for a caddie, swing coach, short-game specialist, trainer, nutritionist and osteopath; and other expenses of the modern Tour pro.) For context, his career Tour earnings are $12.2 million, $9.2 million of which was accumulated between 2008 and '10. Kim signed a blockbuster deal with Nike following the '08 season, and his annual endorsement income peaked the following year at $6 million. If he can again be the player he was, he could make his $35 million nut with four or five good years. But that's a very big if. "To say that he won't come back because of money, that doesn't ring true to me because he's the most competitive kid I know," says Knost. "I can't imagine that's what he's thinking, unless something's changed and he doesn't want to play anymore."
That, ultimately, is the $35 million question: Does AK want to play anymore?
Kim’s complicated relationship with golf began at home. He grew up in Los Angeles's Koreatown, an only child to first-generation immigrants who ran an Asian herb business. Like Earl Woods before him, Paul Kim had a passion for golf and big dreams for his son. He pushed the young AK relentlessly. "He was pretty brutal," Anthony told me during a wide-ranging interview in 2010. "But that's what made me better." He recalled when his father took a first-place trophy Anthony had won and threw it in the trash because his scores were deemed too high. (Neither Paul nor his wife, Miryoung, Anthony's mom, responded to interview requests.) With the golf options limited around downtown L.A., Anthony's parents settled on an unusual arrangement to aid in his development: They moved him 130 miles east to La Quinta, where he lived by himself at age 16. (His folks would spend weekends in the desert, during which Miryoung would cook enough food to get her son through the upcoming school week.) Living near the 1st green of PGA West, Kim had access to six courses and a variety of Tour-caliber practice areas. His game accelerated, and as a La Quinta High sophomore he won the CIF-Southern Section championship on the same course where Tiger Woods had taken the title -- though Kim's score bettered his idol's by two strokes. He earned a full ride to Oklahoma and embarked on a double major in girls and partying. During his son's sophomore year in Norman, Paul caught wind of his high jinks, and over the phone they had the kind of blowup that had become increasingly common. This time something broke inside of Anthony -- he wouldn't speak to his father for nearly two years.
Kim turned pro in the summer of 2006, after his junior year, and tied for second in his first tournament, pocketing $298,666 at the Texas Open. "Worst thing that could've happened to me," he said in 2010. Feeling as if success was a gimme, Kim spent more time partying than practicing, developing a bad-boy reputation that was as oversized as his belt buckles. "When I jumped out on Tour, I was attracted to shiny things, shiny people," Kim said. "I got sucked into a whole different world. I don't know if things ever got out of control, but they were moving way too fast."
Indeed, even before his mysterious disappearance, Kim was the Tour's most gossiped-about player. He was pulled into an ugly controversy at the 2009 Presidents Cup when International team member Robert Allenby told reporters his "friends" had seen Kim coming back to his hotel "sideways" at 4 a.m. following the third day of competition. It was a dubious bit of hearsay -- and Kim steadfastly denied any sort of drunken nocturnal escapade -- but it got a lot of play because of his reputation. He went out the next day and thumped Allenby 5 and 3 in singles, but the incident further tainted his image.
Searching to redefine himself, Kim called a "team meeting" that December with his caddie, Brodie Flanders; his now-departed agent at IMG, Chris Armstrong; and a wolf pack of close friends that included Stephen Ferguson and Ryan Todey. This was not a spartan exercise; Kim flew everyone to Aspen, Colo., on a private plane and brought in a masseuse and a chef. The group agreed that Kim would practice harder, get in better shape and further tighten his social circle. A few months earlier he had paid $2.3 million for a 10,000-square-foot bachelor pad in Dallas, moving in Flanders, Ferguson and Todey to serve in varying capacities. (Kim dropped $60,000 on an eardrum-shattering home theater, but it was so complicated Ferguson had to turn the system on for him.) His friends were all too happy to be wingmen as they hit the town in his drop-top Bentley. "I wanted a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, but I made a team decision," Kim said. "I had to get something with four seats so these guys can ride with me."
Kim's pals ferried him to the gym and challenged him to putting contests on the $160,000 synthetic green he installed in his backyard. He credited this support system with spurring him to victory at the 2010 Houston Open and the near miss the following week at the Masters. But while Kim mouthed press-conference platitudes about his new maturity, he could still spin out of control. In October '10, early in the week of the Tour stop in Las Vegas, he was entertaining two dozen friends at a club when the deejay tweeted, "Anthony Kim is an animal ... 115 bottles then to top it off a 25k bottle of Dom, which he showered the dance floor with." The tweet was picked up by the golf media, and it was a bad look when Kim subsequently withdrew from the tournament. (He called me that day to say the accounts of his partying were "exaggerated" and that the reason for his WD was soreness in his thumb.)
Golf will tolerate a hedonist if he is winning -- just look at Walter Hagen -- but Kim received little sympathy when he started making more bogeys than birdies. In his first 10 tournaments of 2012, he missed four cuts, was disqualified once and withdrew three times, citing wrist and elbow injuries. That May, Kim vented his frustration to Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press. "I hear it all the time across the locker room doors," Kim said. "I hear people: 'What is going on with him?' I hear little comments: 'He doesn't care about golf.' Everyone has a reason [to explain my struggles]. Well, no one knows the reason but me. I need to hit balls, to practice. But I'm hurting myself by hitting more balls."
Shortly thereafter Kim shredded his Achilles.
The Madison Club is the swankiest golf outpost in the Coachella Valley; Mickelson is a member and keeps a home there. In January 2013, he was tuning up for the PGA season when Kim appeared out of the ether. "He was still getting over the Achilles injury," Mickelson says. "He wasn't walking much, so he was playing only nine holes at a time in a cart. But he was hitting it great -- long and straight. He looked ready for the Tour. I expected to see him out there in a couple of months."
Kim never showed.
In the late summer Kim was back at the Madison Club, putting in long hours. IMG began whispering to reporters he was planning to return for the Tour's Fall Series. He was a no-show for that as well. There have been a few stirrings this year. In April, Kim called PGA Tour headquarters. "He couldn't remember his password for our internal systems and wanted to know what it was," says the player-relations staffer who took the call. "He also wanted to know about his player disability and how he could enter some tournaments. He wanted to know what he is eligible for."
Kim still has Tour status based on his major medical exemption, but to maintain his playing privileges he has to earn at least $613,550 in his next 16 events. Failing that, he could still get into many tournaments through the past-champions category or on sponsors' exemptions.
Over the summer Kim hit balls a handful of times at TPC Craig Ranch. (No one there has seen him on the course itself, and Kim's friend in Dallas says, "I couldn't tell you the last time he played a full round of golf.") He recently got his hair cut for the first time in eight months, but it still falls a couple of inches below his shoulders, which may explain why after a visit to Craig Ranch in July one staffer described him as looking like "a hobo." He arrived with five friends, including a young woman who was not dressed for golf. "She wasn't wearing much of anything," says the TPC employee. Kim hit balls for 45 minutes and then vanished as suddenly as he had arrived.
While the insurance policy may loom large in Kim's thinking, money is not the only thing that could be keeping him outside the ropes. He never felt at home amid the Tour's stodgy country club values, and that sense of otherness has only intensified during his time away. "He doesn't like where the Tour is heading," says his friend in Dallas. "He feels like it's become even more corporate, that the fans and the Tour itself do not support his style. He has no love for the Tour officials. He was tired of them hassling him for every little thing and fining him for stupid stuff."
Kim burned up so much goodwill with his behavior that even another iconoclast is not exactly waiting for him with open arms. "Maybe if he would've taken care of himself a little better, he would be out here," García said last month. "I don't know, he always seemed like a loose cannon." During Kim's injury-ravaged stretch, a popular parlor game among his colleagues was to guess whether his time away was a cover for suspensions handed out by the Tour for misconduct. IMG's Jones is on record as saying that Kim has never been suspended, but there's no way to be sure given the Tour's absurd policy not to disclose details of its disciplinary actions. Kim, says his friend, is well aware of the many questions swirling around him, and the friend believes that is fueling Kim's reluctance to return to the Tour. "I think AK has come to resent his fame," he says. "Every little mistake he ever made got blown out of proportion by the media. He knows that if he were to ever come back there would be a ton of scrutiny, and he's not sure he wants to deal with all of the hassles."
Then again, maybe Kim is suffering from a kind of stage fright. He is more than three years removed from his last top 10, a strong run at the 2011 British Open. Ian Baker-Finch, David Duval and Mike Weir are among the champions of recent vintage whose aptitude for the game seemingly vanished overnight due to injury or swing changes. The scar tissue was as much mental as physical. Adam Schriber, Kim's swing coach since he was 14, says he hasn't been in touch with Kim -- "I don't know what's going on with him, man" -- but he posits that Kim may have lost a fundamental belief in himself during his final two injury-plagued years on Tour. "He had so many things go wrong with his body, he was always making compensations," says Schriber. "And because of the injuries, he couldn't practice, so he would always turn up on the first tee searching for his swing. You do that long enough and it's easy to lose your confidence, even if you're as talented as he is."
The friend in Dallas says Kim has confided that he feels he has lost some of his power off the tee. If that's true, seeing contemporaries such as McIlroy and Bubba Watson and Adam Scott overpower courses would surely not inspire the 5'10", 160-pound Kim to believe he can come back and compete with them. It may be that no single injury was a career-ender but that Kim's body is now so brittle he can't withstand the pounding required to be tournament-ready. Whether this would satisfy an insurance company on the hook for an eight-figure payout remains to be seen.
Another way of looking at it is that Kim is living the dream: retired at 29, without a care in the world. While his old rivals were grinding in recent weeks trying to make the Ryder Cup team, Kim headed to Belize on a whim. Those in a position to know say Kim is sound financially. He is still under contract with Nike, though company spokesperson Gretchen Wilhelm declined to discuss particulars. In April, Kim put his Xanadu in Dallas on the market for $2.2 million and has been staying with a girlfriend while he assesses his next move. He tools around town in a Rolls-Royce Ghost. It had been flossed out with custom rims, but recently he reinstalled the stock wheels. "He wants to be more incognito," his friend says, without irony. The standing Monday-night card game at a private residence atop the Ritz aside, Kim has increasingly become a recluse. A hostess at So & So's, where Kim is known as an extravagant tipper, says he hasn't been around since the spring. At his favorite strip club, Baby Dolls, the consensus was that Kim hadn't been there in months, and that he was missed. "He always takes good care of the girls," says one waitress.
So how is Kim spending his time these days? "Lotsa SportsCenter," says his friend. "Lotsa Golf Channel." Kim's restlessness is palpable. "He still has the passion," says the friend. "He's always talking about golf. He wants to be out there. He misses it." In fact, on Thursday through Sunday, Kim is usually in front of a TV monitoring the Tour telecasts. "It's kind of sad to see," says the friend. "Sometimes I just want to grab him and shake him and yell, 'What the hell are you doing? You're Anthony Kim! Get off the damn couch and get out there and find your game!'"
But there AK sits, watching the game pass him by.
This story appeared in the Sept. 22 issue of Sports Illustrated. Subscribe to the digital edition of SI here.