Anthony Kim is poised for takeoff

Anthony Kim is poised for takeoff

Even before he won, Kim had no hesitancy about broadcasting his self-confidence and flair.
Robert Seale/SI

The story of Anthony Kim begins not on a golf course but under a bridge. It originates in South Korea, where a child is spending her days and nights among barriers and columns in the biting cold. As a teenager she is helping support two sisters and a brother by working while going to school. When she is older, she will leave for the U.S. with a few hundred dollars and no knowledge of English. One day, when the time is right, she will tell her son these stories about growing up homeless, and, maybe, he will learn about sacrifice.

She will arrive in Los Angeles and marry another Korean immigrant in an arranged ceremony, and they will open up a small herb store. Two days after giving birth to the couple’s only child, a boy named Anthony, she will go back to work, rising at dawn with her husband and not leaving until dark.

The business will grow large enough for the couple to open a bigger store on the corner of Sixth and Kingsley. The son will get bigger too, but only so much. His love is basketball — way more than golf — and he will spend his after-school hours bouncing off the larger kids, chasing down loose balls, doing anything he can to stay in the game. He will run home in the dark, and if his parents aren’t there, he will eat a sandwich and then run back out to practice his free throws.

When Anthony returns home again, his father, Paul, will ask his son what he’s been doing with his time. Paul doesn’t deal in subtlety. His own childhood in Korea, too, was shrouded in poverty, and he carried those memories across the ocean.

What did you do all day, Tony — play basketball?

“Do you know how parents are always telling their kids they can be the president?” Anthony says. “My dad was pretty straightforward: ‘You are not going to be the president. You are not going to make it to the [NBA]. What you can do is play golf.'”

With his mother, Miryoung, the discipline was always gentler. Anthony could not bring himself to argue with her. But he was always ready to joust with his father, a man who often expressed his love through criticism, with second-guessing and by thickening his son’s skin. Hit it here. Hit it there. Why are you hitting driver? Why are you laying up?

“My dad was always saying, ‘You have to be tough; you can’t be intimidated,'” Kim says. “I wouldn’t say he encouraged me to fight, but he encouraged me to understand that if somebody got in my face, I should be the first one to pull back and rip them. So when he said something that I didn’t think was right, I’d tell him he was wrong. It backfired on him. That’s my dad in me. I think that’s where I got my toughness for the golf course.”

It’s 1 p.m. on the Monday after the Colonial, and Kim is sitting in the TV room at his suburban Dallas home, eating a submarine sandwich, wearing throwback Air Jordans and talking about Kobe Bryant. His girlfriend, Lisa Pruett, is curled up on a chair with a magazine, his personal trainer is finishing lunch, and his friend Paull Veroulis (who has just this day taken a job as Kim’s personal assistant) is clutching the guitar of a Nintendo Wii.

Across the room, lying face down on the couch and fast asleep, is a college friend of Kim’s from Oklahoma. “Hey, Lane,” Kim shouts. “How many more years of college do you have, six?” Lane doesn’t move.

This is the home of the man who could be golf’s next great player, the son of Korean immigrants whose vibe is a lot more hip-hop and a lot less Seoul, a player whose two biggest goals before the season were to make the Ryder Cup team (he’s seventh in the standings after the Memorial) and star on MTV Cribs (still working on that).

Last month Kim tore through the field at the Wachovia Championship, earning his first PGA Tour win by five shots. Next week he will tee off at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines believing that his first major championship is only four good rounds away. Ten years younger than Tiger Woods, Kim, who will turn 23 the week after the Open, is the face of a generation that is unscarred by years of beatdowns at the hands of the No. 1 player in the world.

“I want it all,” Kim says. “I’m a man of the people. I want to help kids. I want to be Number 1, to win majors, and I want to be the baddest person on the planet.” He already dresses the part, with his gaudy ak belt and shoes as white as typing paper.

His voice is loud, bouncing off the walls, calling his dogs, Norman, a goldendoodle, and Rocky, a pit bull.

“Being around Anthony is always exciting,” says Pruett, a personal trainer, who met Kim at Oklahoma. “It’s part of the ride.”

A year ago during his rookie season? You wouldn’t believe Kim was riding anywhere but down, considering how he spent his days and nights. Vodka was his drink of choice, the practice range a foreign land. “I’d go right from the course to the bar,” he says.

He played several rounds on Tour hung over, others on 45 minutes of sleep. In his professional debut at the 2006 Valero Texas Open he tied for second and figured he had the pro game licked. “Worst thing that could have happened to me,” Kim says.

The whispering campaign on Tour began: If only that kid worked harder. Damn, is he cocky.

“Man, you’re a professional golfer,” Veroulis told him. “You might want to think about going about this differently.”

Kim didn’t. Last spring and summer were one long frat party, with Kim traveling on his own and making new friends in every city.

And then it happened. Standing on the 460-yard par-4 8th hole at last year’s Reno-Tahoe Open, Kim hit his nadir. It was 380 yards to carry a creek along the left side and to reach a narrow strip of fairway. Kim swung as hard as he could from the elevated tee box, carried the water, saw his ball crash into the trees and kick out into the fairway. He made birdie, only to realize that he hadn’t cared where his ball might end up.

“I felt as if I was doing the same thing with my life, putting in a lot of risk for very little reward,” Kim says. “If I hit that shot 100 times, that’s the only time I’m going to clear the water. Looking back, that was embarrassing. I didn’t respect the game enough, and I didn’t respect myself enough.”

Kim says he thought about quitting golf. Instead, he quit drinking for five months, embarked on a three-month weight-training regimen with Darby Rich, the strength and conditioning coach for the Oklahoma basketball team, and reintroduced himself to practice. He dropped several acquaintances who had glommed onto him for free meals and fast access into clubs. He played with Mark O’Meara at the Merrill Lynch Shootout in December, another fortuitous turn for a wayward soul.

“I went to dinner with him a couple of nights,” O’Meara says. “He knows he’s made some mistakes. He’s willing to change and become a better person and a better player. I told him, ‘I’m not an expert, but I’ve watched a lot and I’ve seen a lot, and you have as much talent or more talent than any other player I’ve seen besides Tiger, and I believe that.'”

At his first Tour event of ’08, the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic, Kim tied for third. The following week, on the range at the Buick Invitational, Woods approached him. The players — both from Southern California, both Lakers fans — are friendly.

“It was 9 a.m., and I had just woken up,” Kim recalls. “He comes up to me and says, ‘Hey, nice playing. Keep it up. That’s what I’ve been waiting to see.’ He had never spoken to me like that before. He knew I was messing up last year, but he kind of let me find my way. I felt as if he was talking to me more like I was a man than a kid.”

Kim felt emboldened. “I said, ‘Hey, do you want to go play a practice round?'” Kim says. “He says, ‘Practice round? I just got done with my practice round.’ That’s when I knew I’d better start getting on my horse.”

Maybe the rebellion was inevitable. After years of a father bearing down on his son, a break was bound to happen.

“You’re garbage,” Paul told his son at times. “You couldn’t get up and down from there in 50 tries.”

“I knew about their relationship,” says Anthony Harris, who was the athletic director at Campbell Hall in North Hollywood, a college prep school that Kim attended. “[Anthony] felt like, Dad, I know I’m a good golfer, but let me be a kid. The dad was more like, You have to do this, and you have to do that. He was always on him. Anthony wanted to crack a couple of jokes. He wasn’t always focused on his books. He was a bit of a knucklehead.”

Anthony acted out, and often. A circle of his teenage friends had started getting into mischief and lawlessness, and he was ready to run with them. Instead, when Anthony was 16, his parents bought him a town house in La Quinta, a desert golf haven two hours east of Los Angeles, and moved him there to live alone. “That was more about straightening out my life than about golf,” Kim says.

Anthony transferred to La Quinta High. On weekends Paul and Miryoung would make the drive out, and Miryoung would spend an entire day in the kitchen, whipping up his favorite Korean dishes, gal-bi (short ribs) and bul go gi (barbecued beef). She’d put them in the freezer, and Anthony would have his meals for a week.

After dominating the junior golf circuit (he was a four-time American Junior Golf Association All-America), Kim thought about turning pro straight out of high school. He had sponsors lined up. Miryoung talked him out of it.

“Go to college for one year,” she told him. One year became two. Two became three.

“I couldn’t argue with my mom,” he says. “That would be like slapping her in the face.”

He chose Oklahoma, far away from his father’s iron fist, and quickly flashed the talent (he was a three-time All-America) that later would make O’Meara mention him in the same sentence as Woods.

The distance wasn’t enough. Near the end of his sophomore year Kim decided that he’d heard enough from the father who had taught him to play golf when he was a toddler. For almost two years they didn’t speak, a pocket in time that Anthony says he had to have.

“That was my decision,” he says. “That was to let him know that it doesn’t go down like that. You may be my father, but you’re not my boss. I’ve gotten this good with your help, but I still have a lot of potential to fill out, and I can’t do it when somebody is yapping in my ear.”

The two didn’t reconnect until December 2006, when Anthony was playing at the Tour’s qualifying school at La Quinta’s PGA West and Nicklaus courses, tracks that he knew forward and backward. With his father in the gallery Anthony earned a spot on the PGA Tour, and the ice began to thaw.

When they returned home, Anthony hugged his parents for several minutes, and Paul acknowledged that he had been burdensome to his only child, while Anthony realized that his dad had reared him the way he thought was right.

“I know at the end of the day he was doing it so I could be the best I could possibly be,” Anthony says. “He had his own tough life. He didn’t grow up with much. When I think about that and the opportunity I have, it’s unbelievable.”

And so the lines of communication are open, and Kim is thriving on the Tour. On the night of his victory at the Wachovia he picked up the telephone. On the other end were his parents, who were back in California, where they had watched their son romp at Quail Hollow Club.

For several seconds the phone line was quiet, each of them searching for something to say. Finally, it was Anthony who spoke, thanking his parents, over and over again. At last, he had learned about sacrifice.