Christina Kim and the Most Heartwarming Victory of 2014

December 10, 2014

It’s been a few weeks now, but I’m still giddy about Christina Kim’s victory at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational. It was CK’s first win in nine years, an eternity in the life of a onetime teenage phenom. Christina is 30 now and has grown up before our eyes, in a public life as colorful as her wardrobe and as outsized as her personality. It has rarely been easy. She has always been a lightning rod, too electric a character for the stodgy golf world, too raw and real for the tastes of many Twitter trolls. But Christina is never anything but herself. The highlights of her victory in Mexico City should be set to Sinatra: She did it her way, and always has.

I first met Christina in 2004, at the start of her sophomore year on the LPGA tour, in the course of reporting an SI Golf Plus feature. A year earlier she had made one of the most audacious debuts in tour history, shooting a third-round 62 in her first start (at the Welch’s/Fry’s Championship) and going on to finish fourth. Back then she was traveling with her parents, Man and Deok, in a sagging 1995 Dodge van, and her dad was an omnipresent coach/caddie/agent. It was a fraught arrangement, given that Man was a caricature of the overbearing Korean Golf Dad. (Before the young Christina was allowed to hit a golf ball, she had to make hundreds of practice swings for 30 straight days in the family backyard in San Jose.)

But Man was also immensely likeable, with a big laugh and the kind of blunt honesty reporters dream about. Christina was clearly her father’s daughter. I asked her how Man felt about her dating. “He’s anti-penis,” she said. “That’s not to say he’s pro-vagina. He simply doesn’t want anything or anybody to interfere with my golf.” That might be my favorite quote in 21 years of writing about professional golf. In the ensuing years, Christina became my favorite interview. She was riotously funny — sarcastic and profane, with a vocab peppered by Cali slang — but also introspective, thoughtful and not afraid to tell it like it is.

At some point I concluded that Christina needed a wider audience, and more room to tell her tale. That led to our collaboration on the book, Swinging From My Heels, which chronicled her tumultuous 2009 season. Putting together the book was so much fun. I watched her play when I could but mostly we would gab on the phone for hours at a time, Christina checking in from a hotel room in some distant land or sometimes while practicing her putting, with the iPhone tucked into her bra and me on speakerphone. In the book, Christina was brutally honest about her many struggles: trying to liberate herself from her parents; the crushing pressure of tournament golf; issues of a negative body image and low self-esteem; the loneliness that can come with living out of a hotel room. In 2012 she courageously shared with Golf Digest her battles with depression, sparking an important conversation within the sport and outside of it. In the two years since numerous people have thanked Christina for giving voice to their own fight.

Around that time I played 18 holes with Christina and was struck by how short she was off the tee. She’d once been one of the longest, straightest ballstrikers on tour, but for a couple of years she’d been having back problems that robbed her of her power and confidence. In 2011 and ’12 she didn’t have a single top 10. Someday Christina will be an ace TV commentator, yet at that point I feared a career change was imminent.

But in 2013 she finally got healthy and in 2014 she began playing like her old self (a sixth in Texas, a second at the Shoprite). I found myself again scanning the agate for her scores, a habit I had given up because it was becoming too painful. Finally, at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational all the years of frustration and doubt were wiped away in an awesome unleashing of talent and will — the latter most vividly displayed during the playoff in which Christina beat Shanshan Feng for her third career victory. When Christina broke down during the champion’s interview, I got a lump in my throat.

Sometimes a golf tournament is only that — a bunch of players knocking a ball around, devoid of larger meaning. Sometimes, the game illuminates the best and worst in us. Christina’s victory was a triumph in every sense. Welcome back, kid.

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