BETHESDA, Md. — Anthony Kim has never lacked for confidence, certainly not at Congressional Country Club. Three years ago, Kim entered the final round of the AT&T National here three shots off the lead. Donning a diamond-studded “AK” belt buckle, the then 23-year-old hung up a blistering 5-under 65 to win by two. A year later, on his way to a third-place finish in the same event, Kim fired a first-round 62. Eight under? On this brute? Kim was suddenly an early favorite to win the 2011 U.S. Open, even if it was almost two years away.
Those two years are behind us now, and in the wake of six missed cuts and just one top-10 finish in 16 starts this season, Kim — the brash, uber-talented, one-time Next Big Thing — is on no one’s short list to win.
Well, almost no one’s.
“I’m not about predicting the future, but I feel very good about this week,” Kim said as he made the long walk from the 18th green back to the clubhouse after his practice round Wednesday. “I feel great. I know it sounds crazy. But I’ve been working really hard and as I’ve said for a long time, it’s just a matter of time. And hopefully this is the week when the time comes and I put it all together.”
Kim didn’t arrive at Congressional until Tuesday because he said he was more concerned about being “mentally fresh” than walking the course or honing his mechanics. Still, he’s clearly not taking the week lightly. Kim played nine holes Tuesday and at 7 p.m. he was one of just two players banging balls on the range.
“I’m just trying to make sure I peak for the weekend,” he said.
Much of Kim’s demise — he has plummeted from 14th in the world ranking after his win at the 2008 AT&T to 65th today — can be attributed to the surgery he had in May 2010 to repair damaged ligaments in his left thumb. He returned to the Tour in August of that year, finishing tied for 76th at the Bridgestone Invitational then missed the cut in his next four starts. (Kim’s season was further sullied by rumors that his withdrawal from Justin Timberlake’s Vegas event was triggered by a late night at the Bellagio casino, a story Kim vehemently denied.)
“I developed so many bad habits over the past couple of years trying to protect my thumb, and it’s been hard to get rid of those habits,” Kim said today. “I’m kind of in between golf swings, and I’m out here trying to grind and work on my game and get the rust knocked off. It’s been a tough road back.”
That’s not the kind of talk you’d expect to hear from an imminent U.S. Open champion. But Kim says he has rediscovered the long ball, which is essential to winning on a 7,500-plus-yard track like Congressional.
“It’s a driver’s course, and when I was playing well I drove it in the fairway and I hit it pretty far,” he said. “Then after I hurt myself and nobody knew about it, I was hitting it all over the place and 20 yards shorter.
“After playing the last couple of holes here [Wednesday], I know I’ve got my pop back and it’s starting to go straight. I know it’s just a matter of time before I have short-irons and sand wedges in and I start dialing in my distances.”
Kim played his practice round Wednesday with Stanford star David Chung. Both piped solid drives down the 18th fairway, but from some 200 yards out Chung proceeded to dump three — count ’em, three — approach shots into the water that guards the left side of the peninsula green. If Kim was unnerved by the spectacle, it didn’t show. He calmly stepped up and swiped the kind of controlled, pin-seeking draw that helps players win majors on Sunday afternoons.
“I know a lot people have forgotten about me, which I understand,” Kim said. “But it’s just matter of time before people say that I’m back.”