As TPC Sawgrass proved too difficult for most, a 21-year-old took center stage

May 15, 2017

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It was Mother’s Day, the second Sunday in May, but it felt like summer. College girls in sundresses, parked on the clubhouse veranda. Incognito men, in their hats and sunglasses and Prosperous American heft, behind the 17th tee, analyzing the action with cross-armed intensity. They reflected, these men did, the tone from on high, from NBC Sports, where Justin Leonard, the 1998 Players champion, was explaining to Mike Tirico that the players—the best golfers in the world—were backing up not because of the difficulty of the TPC Sawgrass course but because of the greatness of the trophy—an obelisk, made of crystal—for which they were playing.

Hmmm. Less reported were the spoils: $1.9 million and a five-year Tour exemption for winning, $1.1 million for solo second, a half-mil for fourth. Big bucks, right on down the line. The gents weren’t playing for eternal consciousness or a green jacket. They were playing for the bacon, maybe more of it than they could handle. Maybe that was the real reason why the golf on Sunday was so poor.

With one exception: the golf played by the winner, Si Woo Kim of South Korea, with his perfect swing, limited English and 21 years on this earth, who played like an automaton, a drive-it-in-play scrambling machine. You wouldn’t call his golf exciting. But it was better than anybody else’s, and he won by three. At some point, he smiled.

It’s true that Kim’s golf has been lousy all year as he has struggled with back pain. His best finish in 2017 had been a T22 in Texas. But he’s an immense talent who won last year, and if you’re shocked by his victory you shock easily.

Kim now has a job for the next five years—PGA Tour player—and another $1.9 million in the bank. Jason Day, last year’s winner, handed the kid his crystal trophy wearing a black T-shirt. (It’s a new day.) The winner conducted his post-round interviews with the help of a translator named Dayea Kim, and whatever pleasure his victory brought him was not immediately apparent. There are cultural differences, to be sure. That’s a fact of life on the LPGA tour, which is dominated by players from Korea. To generalize, Korean golfers are less demonstrative than, say, Arnold Palmer or Bubba Watson.

Kim’s scrambling, closing bogey-free 69 was the third most interesting round of the day, behind Ian Poulter’s 71 (it was the way he did it) and the 84 shot by J.B. Holmes, the former Ryder Cupper who was the 54-hole co-leader and playing in the last group. Holmes’s score was just weird.

But, then, it was a weird day. Holmes’s playing partner and co-leader, Kyle Stanley, went out in 38 and made no noise after that. Louis Oosthuizen, the only major winner in serious contention, shot a front-nine 38 and spent the rest of the day looking like a jetliner stuck on the tarmac.

Not that there wasn’t some excitement. For instance, the double-eagle 2 made on the 16th hole by Rafa Cabrera Bello, dashing Spaniard from Central casting. He followed that bit of magic with a 2 on 17 and a unlikely par on the last, after a tee shot in the lake.

And not that there wasn’t other theater, of a kind. When Holmes and Stanley trudged up the final hole in the day’s final twosome, they did so in front of a sparse crowd and understandably so. What was there to stick around for? It happens, that the last group is hopelessly out of contention. But this was extreme. As the Masters has its own theme song (the treacly number called “Augusta” by Dave Loggins) the 2017 Players deserves its own song. We’re suggesting “Tighten Up,” by Archie Bell & The Drells. Playing for all that money will do it. Particularly on a course that uses water as a penalty the way young mothers these days use timeouts.

Poulter, the European Ryder Cupper you love to hate, was exceedingly entertaining on Sunday, even if we could not see, behind his sunglasses, if his eyes were still doing his patented Marty Feldman bug-out thing. (Do yourself a favor and see “Young Frankenstein.”) A month ago, Poulter did not even have full status on the PGA Tour. Then there was a correction of a Tour accounting mix-up. Then there was his play on 18 on Sunday. All he did was make a bogey 5, but that allowed him to tie for second, earn $924,000 and secure (in all likelihood) a spot in the FedEd Cup playoffs. In other words, you’ll be seeing a lot of him from here on out. Maybe he’ll play without the glasses at some point. We can hope.

On 18, on consecutive shots, Poulter hit a shank followed by a thread-the-needle 115-yard approach that he nearly holed. His closing bogey allowed him to finish in a tie for second instead of third and that difference will define the rest of his year.

Poulter said he went “from one of the worst shots I’ve ever hit to one of the very best.” And he did it on the 72nd hole. “It’s nice to close out,” he said.

It would be wrong to think that Kim is a callow youth and golfing savant with nothing but the game on his mind. He is of course aware of the political unrest in his home country. He said on Sunday that he is prepared to do his required tour of duty in the Korean military. He said he was proud that his victory would almost guarantee a place on the International team in the Presidents Cup this fall.

Through his translator, Kim said this of his victory: “I still can’t believe that I’m the champion, and that I’m the youngest champion for this championship. I’m very honored to be the champion for this amazing fifth major. I’m looking forward to working hard from now on.”

Nothing was lost in translation, you can be sure of that. Because he sounds pretty much like another golfer who started winning on Tour at age 20 and 21. We all know who that is, and Si Woo Kim does too. Of course he does. He grew up on Tiger Woods.