Anthony Kim's big upside was lost on no one, especially not caddies. But it's one thing to have an eye for a talented player, another to land him, and something different altogether to hang onto him, especially if said player is by his own admission young and brash. Kim, "A.K." to his friends and his belt buckle, has gone through caddies like a Hollywood starlet goes through boyfriends. At 22, he's on his third, not counting friends. No one said he's not precocious.
Ron Levin (full disclosure: a friend of mine) was the first. He's well into his 30s, but has been on Tour since age 17, hence his nickname, Bambi. He was on the bag when Todd Hamilton won the 2004 Honda Classic and British Open. He's also got a rep for breaking in young aces, so he got the call to work for Kim at the 2006 Valero Texas Open. Result: In his first Tour start, Kim shot a final-round 65 to tie for second and make $300,000.
"I learned so much from my caddie this week," Kim said then. "He usually caddies for Todd Hamilton and Todd was taking the week off, so I obviously got lucky to get paired with him. I learned a ton where to go at pins and where not to. Even if you have a lob wedge in your hand doesn't mean it's a green-light pin. It was a great learning experience."
The two were just warming up. Thanks to his top-10, Kim got into the next week's Southern Farm Bureau Classic, and tied for 16th. He and Levin worked through all three stages of Q-school, including a win at stage two, and Kim got his card. Life was good.
"The first two months it was like playing a video game," Levin says. "It was like Golden Tee: 'Hit it here.' And he would. It was awesome."
Momentum continued into 2007 as Kim posted top-10s in L.A. (final-round 64), Houston, New Orleans and Charlotte, but the relationship soon began to sour. As Kim has admitted more than once in recent interviews, he stopped practicing and started partying once he secured his card for 2008. He aimed at sucker pins. He shot 78-83 to finish last among those who missed the cut at the Players. He cut ties with his longtime swing coach. Says Levin: "All hell broke loose."
By the Barclays in late August, player and caddie were on thin ice. Kim had begun to believe he was overpaying Levin, who admits he sought and got a deal-sweetener to leave Hamilton. When Kim four-putted the final green at the Barclays to finish T17 in late August, he fired Levin on the spot. The story got around that the caddie had been fleecing the new guy. Levin says he was being paid a reasonable wage, but he thought Kim was influenced by a conversation he had with two Ryder Cup veterans. Kim told them what he was paying his caddie every week and was laughed at because he was quoting a wildly high sum. Thing was, Levin says, that sum was not Levin's normal pay, it was what he made the week of the British Open to offset his airfare.
All gossip aside, the specifics hardly mattered. For Kim it was time to make a new hire, and he chose Scott Gneiser, a longtime David Toms sidekick. By this time it was September, and Kim, used to the much shorter college season, was burned out. He missed the cut by a stroke at the second stop in the new FedEx Cup playoffs, the Deutsche Bank in Boston.
"I feel like last year it was all a blur," Kim said at the Wachovia last week. "And I didn't learn that much on the golf course…. I went back to the drawing board."
Ironically, Kim found the mentor he was looking for not in a caddie but in Mark O'Meara, his partner for the Merrill Lynch Shootout in December. They tied for eighth, and O'Meara told Kim he had as much talent as anyone he'd seen since Woods. The praise reignited Kim's flame, and he resumed practicing.
It seemed that Gneiser would be the beneficiary in 2008. Eager for a fresh start, Kim tied for third at the Bob Hope in Palm Springs, where he went to high school. Kim's first win appeared imminent, and in retrospect it was-but with a new supporting cast.
Kim and Gneiser imploded at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles in mid-February. After his lackluster second half of 2007, Kim was on the bubble to get into the WGC-Accenture Match Play the week after L.A. After much speculation, it appeared he was in line to be the 64th seed, meaning a first-round match with Tiger Woods.
The prospect of playing Woods is enough to put anyone on edge, especially Kim, who was already being compared to Tiger, but the match never happened. Just before the Friday deadline, Ernie Els decided to enter the Accenture, bumping Kim out of the field.
Gneiser broke the news to Kim on the Riviera range, and according to multiple caddie sources, a bitter argument began between player and caddie over whether Kim needed to hear the news then and there. That he shot 73-77 to miss the cut didn't help. He and Gneiser were finished; word even got out that they'd fired each other.
"I didn't feel like we were thinking alike on the course," Kim said last week. (Gneiser could not be reached for comment.)
Enter Eric Larson, whose career as a caddie was interrupted in 1995 by a 10-year prison sentence for his part in a small-time cocaine ring.
"We were friends-we started hanging out a little bit last year," Kim said at Quail Hollow. "And we got to be pretty close. I wanted someone I could hang out with off the golf course, as well. It just so happened that he had a week open and I had a week open, and I said, 'Let's do it,' and he was on. So I gave him a four-week trial, and this is the third week, so I'd say he's got a pretty good shot at getting the bag."
Larson won with Mark Calcavecchia before his incarceration and has already won twice since then, once with Calcavecchia at last year's PODS Championship, and now with Kim. How long he'll last is an open question, but his comeback highlights the intestinal fortitude required in his line of work, as does the entire short story of A.K. Inc.
Levin now caddies for Kenneth Ferrie, the Brit who contended at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot but has not played well since and didn't qualify for this week's Players. Gneiser has been working for Parker McLachlin, who didn't make the field this week, either. Kim is the poster boy for this year's leitmotif: The arrival of the 20-somethings.
"I knew it was going to happen," Levin says of Kim's arrival, but they haven't spoken. "We didn't leave on the best of terms."
Maybe all that talk about their SoCal roots and Nike swooshes is on point, and Kim really is the second coming of Woods. Tiger's formative years on Tour were just as tumultuous, if not more so, featuring the firings of his starter caddie Mike (Fluff) Cowan after more than two years; IMG agent Hughes Norton; and super-coach Butch Harmon.
Kim may mellow as Woods has, but meanwhile the rise of a golf prodigy is like a well-worn line from Fight Club: "You wanna make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs."