ARDMORE, Pa. — The USGA defines an amateur as someone "who plays golf for the challenge it presents, not as a profession and not for financial gain."
Michael Kim, a 19-year-old rising junior at Cal, had to overcome a couple of those challenges in the two weeks leading up to the U.S. Open.
Lose in the semifinals of the NCAA championships? No problem. Just go out and qualify for 113th U.S. Open the next day.
Arrive at the biggest tournament of your life without a caddie? Oh, well. Be lucky to get assigned LaRue Temple, a local who has walked Merion Golf Club thousands of times in his 16 years as a looper there. On Saturday, a day when the top two ranked players in the world — Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy — tumbled down the leaderboard, the 5'11", 150-pound Kim played his way into the top 10.
As he stood on the 15th green on Saturday, Kim was even par for the tournament and tied for third with Phil Mickelson and Justin Rose, only two shots out of the lead. With four birdies in his last six holes, he was the hottest player on the course. Kim, who moved to the U.S. from Korea when he was seven, gazed at the leaderboard next to the green. He smiled — not because his name was up there, but at all the other ones.
"I just thought it was super cool to see my name on that big leaderboard next to the leaders like [Charl] Schwartzel, Mickelson, [Luke] Donald, all those guys. It was a cool feeling," said Kim, the Pac-12 golfer of the year and a first-team All-America.
But then Kim snap-hooked a three-wood off the 16th tee so far left that he joked the USGA didn't grow the rough there because they didn't think anyone would hit such an errant shot. He made bogey. He followed with a double-bogey at 17 and a bogey at 18. The four-over par finish dropped him into 10th place, five shots back of Mickelson.
"I didn't feel that nervous, but I definitely think I was looking back on it," said Kim, who shot a one-over-par 71 on a day when the course played to a stroke average of 74.36.
That Kim was even in the field was remarkable. His Golden Bears lost a heartbreaker to Illinois in the semifinals of the NCAA Championship on June 2 in Atlanta. The next day, he flew to Ohio to receive the Jack Nicklaus Award, given to the nation's top golfer. (Like Mickelson and Donald, Kim also won the Haskins Award, the top honor in college golf.) From there he flew back to Georgia for a U.S. Open sectional qualifier. With three spots up for grabs in the field of 51, he tied for medalist honors after shooting 67-66.
By Saturday at Merion, Kim had the attention of some of the world's best players. Defending Open champion Webb Simpson said it was remarkable to see an amateur perform at such a high level in the game's most grueling test. Paul Casey called Kim's run "phenomenal."
They saw what Kim's college coach, Steve Desimone, has witnessed so many times.
"He's the best putter in the country," Desimone told Golf.com. "That's one of the reasons I thought he'd be successful at Merion. From 140 yards and in, he's automatic. And he's not just hitting them inside 10 feet, sometimes it's only six inches."
Through the third round, Kim was proving his coach right. Midway through the final round, Kim was leading the field in par-4 birdies.
Desimone has been at Cal for 35 years, but this is arguably his best team yet. Michael Weaver, the 2012 U.S. Amateur runner-up, and Max Homa were also in the field at Merion. Weaver finished at 21 over after rounds of 74, 74, 78 and 75, while Homa missed the cut.
"You never know how they're going to handle a big stage like this," said Desimone, who flew to San Francisco on Saturday night to celebrate Father's Day with his 91-year-old dad. "There aren't many stages like this in sports. It's a big deal, and I think it's going to help them going forward."
Kim will try today to become the first amateur to finish in the top-5 since Jim Simons finished fifth in the '71 Open — also held at Merion. An amateur hasn't won the tournament in 80 years. Johnny Goodman hoisted the trophy in '33, at North Shore Country Club in Glenview, Ill.
It's all part of the challenge.