PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Tiger Woods was waiting on the sixth hole at Southern Hills last year during a practice round at the PGA Championship when he walked over to the side of the tee box and asked a question no one saw coming.
“What do you think of Anthony Kim?”
Woods pays attention to more than trophies and his bank account, and there was something about the 22-year-old Californian that caught his eye. Kim has explosive skills rarely seen in his age bracket, along with emotions that fit the same description.
He was an All-American for three years at Oklahoma, where he was more about self than team and wound up leaving early. In his first PGA Tour event as a pro, he received a sponsor’s exemption to the Valero Texas Open in 2006.
Kim laughed Tuesday when he recalled the first prolonged conversation he had with Woods in January.
“It was at the Buick Invitational, right after I tied for third at the Bob Hope Classic,” Kim said. “Tiger came over to me on the range and said, “It’s about time.”
Gone was the brash talk that defined Kim’s first season on the PGA Tour, when he rubbed folks the wrong way by talking a far better game than he played, even though he finished 60th on the money list.
Humility comes through winning, even when you smoke one of the best fields on one of the toughest courses. Kim won the Wachovia Championship by five shots with a record score of 16-under 272, impressive with or without Woods at Quail Hollow.
Still wearing his royal blue blazer, with a gaudy, diamond necklace spelling “AK” draped around his neck, Kim walked through the doors of a restaurant and saw Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and NASCAR driver Jimmie Johnson.
He received a standing ovation that lasted five minutes.
“I don’t think I’ve heard anything like that for me since I was in high school and won a tournament,” Kim said.
It never took him so long to unpack his golf bag. Stooped over in front of his locker at the TPC Sawgrass, Kim could barely remove a pair of shoes or box of balls without someone coming by to slap on the back, shake his head or otherwise congratulate him.
He could get used to this.
And unless he does, Kim will fall into the rut of other young players who finally win and are rarely heard from again.
It is not unusual for players in their 20s to win on the PGA Tour. Kim was the fifth player in that age group to win in the last six tournaments, including Trevor Immelman at the Masters, Adam Scott at the EDS Byron Nelson Championship and Andres Romero of Argentina at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans.
Already this year, there have been eight winners in their 20s, surpassing the total from all of 2007.
“I think the notion has received a lot of focus the last few years about where the young players are,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said. “And perhaps we’re headed in a more aggressive direction of young players coming on in the cycle. And we’ll see how that develops the rest of the year.”
It’s not just about winning. It’s about contending regularly, which allows for more chances to win.
Twenty players in their 20s have won PGA Tour events over the last three years, but only four of them have won multiple times. Scott has won each of the last three years, with Immelman, D.J. Trahan and J.B. Holmes winning twice.
The list includes Charles Howell III, who went five years between his first and second victory. It does not include Sergio Garcia, who is tied with Scott for most victories (six) by a player currently in his 20s.
This comes a decade after three players each had at least a dozen victories in that age group. Phil Mickelson won 16 times on tour before turning 30; then came David Duval, who won all 13 of his career victories in his 20s, including a British Open.
Woods won 46 times and 10 majors before his 30th birthday.
Certainly, it’s tougher to win in the Tiger Era, but Duval won all his trophies with Woods on tour.
Why aren’t young guys winning at that rate any more?
“I think there’s a great crop of young players that are out on tour,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know if the increased depth of talent makes it more challenging, or if guys are able to play better golf later in their 30s and 40s. That could be a big element. But when I look at these young players in their 20s, they’re all so talented. They all have so much game, and a lot of them have won this year.
“I don’t think it’s an area of concern by any means.”
Kim was the youngest PGA Tour winner since Garcia captured the Mercedes Championship in 2002 three days before turning 22. He can only hope this is the start of bigger things, but Howell and Sean O’Hair had similar aspirations after their first and second victories.
There’s a reason Woods said to Kim, “It’s about time.”
Kim is as good, if not better, than any other youngster to join the PGA Tour since Woods said, “Hello, world” in 1996.
Mark O’Meara has a better perspective than most. Woods sought him out when he turned pro, and O’Meara hadn’t seen anything close to that kind of talent until he wound up as Kim’s partner in the Merrill Lynch Shootout last fall.
Afterward, O’Meara was raving about him.
“Everybody asks who is the next young player to come along,” O’Meara said earlier this year. “I see a lot of talented young players. Nothing really kind of jumped out at me until I played with this kid. I played with Anthony for three rounds, and I was blown away.
“I would expect big things out of him this year.”