Kim starting his season at home, with plenty to prove

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January 18, 2012
Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents

TOP 100 PLAYERS TO WATCH FOR 2012: Kim No. 34 | Top 100 archive | Play Fantasy

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Anthony Kim has gone back to the future this week, and he's hoping it will jump-start his 2012 PGA TOUR campaign.

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The 26-year-old went to high school here at La Quinta but he's been doing more than renewing acquaintances since he returned to his parents' house just before Christmas. Kim has been trying to recapture the feelings he had when he was one of the top-rated juniors in the country, back when he played golf for fun rather than frustrated by fundamentals.

The test comes this week at the Humana Challenge in partnership with the Clinton Foundation. Kim is playing in what used to be known as the Bob Hope Classic for the first time since he tied for third in 2008, and he knows he has a lot to prove to himself, as well as his many fans.

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Kim has already won three PGA TOUR events, but he's hardly top of list anymore when people talk about the best young players on the PGA TOUR. Not when 29-year-old Bill Haas won the FedExCup and Webb Simpson, who's three years younger, is coming off a career year with two victories and three second places. Or when Rory McIlroy (22), Charl Schwartzel (27) and Keegan Bradley (25) won majors.

To be fair, Kim tore a ligament at the base of his left thumb that required surgery, and he hasn't been quite the same in the intervening 18 months. But people have also questioned his motivation as well as his work habits -- and Kim is determined to find the answers and silence his critics this year.

The 2011 season appears to have been the low point, a year that Kim says would like to forget "very soon." On the plus side, he managed to make the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup, but Kim posted a career-low in earnings, as well as just two top-10 finishes.

After he shot 72-73 and missed the cut at the Deutsche Bank Championship, Kim wasn't sure quite what to do. "Golf was so frustrating I didn't know where the ball was going," Kim said. Should he grind and try to right the ship? Should he call it quits and wait for next year?

So Kim compromised and took a month off, then headed overseas where he finished third or better in the three events he played. One of those was a playoff loss to McIlroy at the Shanghai Masters the week after he took the lead into the final round of the CJ Invitational before closing with a 73 to finish third to K.J. Choi.

As frustrating as the first 10 months were, turns out the last two were confidence-builders.

"I learned a lot about myself, learned a lot about perseverance and grinding through those tough times and trying to keep my head up when it looked like I was just taking on water," Kim said. "I'm looking forward to playing some good golf, but the last part of 2011 when I was over in Asia and started to make a couple birdies and pars, not doubles helped.

"That really turned my mindset around about being able to come out here and compete and give myself a chance to win every single week. And the last two weeks have been huge for me, I've been practicing, playing 36 holes, doing the things I need to do to put myself into a place, a mindset where I can go out and win golf tournaments."

"It's been a tough, tough progression, but I feel like I'm going to be a much better player."

-- Anthony Kim, on his struggles last year

For a while, though, Kim wasn't sure exactly what to fix. Oh, he knew he ranked dead last on TOUR in driving accuracy -- his father kindly pointed that out -- and no surprise, he was just 10 spots from the bottom in greens in regulation, too. At the same time, though, the lack of success he was having getting the ball in the hole was taking a toll on his psyche, which can be even harder to correct.

"Obviously when you make three bogeys on the first three holes, it's hard to be patient because you have to make the 36-hole cut to play 72," Kim said. "So it was more about trying to figure out exactly what I needed. And it wasn't my golf swing, it was mental. It was just to just let it go. And I started standing over the ball for 45 seconds at a time and as you all know the more you think, the worse and harder this game gets.

"So I started saying, look, even if I'm aimed in the wrong direction I'm going to be natural and athletic and try to get the ball to where I see. And with that came better golf shots and more confidence and I started learning more about my golf swing."

The last month or so has convinced Kim he's headed in the right direction. He's thrived sleeping in his own bed and spending time, even New Year's Eve, with his parents -- although he joked that he can only take their good Korean cooking about once a week. He's worked out and hit the range at The Madison Club, then tried to relax and enjoy his practice rounds, remembering what it was like to play here as a free-wheeling teenager.

"It's been great because, after a bad year, you almost want to isolate yourself and try to figure out what you're doing wrong," Kim said. "But having my parents around and bouncing some ideas off them and them just telling me that at the end of the day everything's going to be fine. That has meant a lot to me. ...

"It's been a tough, tough progression, but I feel like I'm going to be a much better player, I feel like a more complete player right now. I'm very confident in my game. Now that doesn't mean I'm going to go out there and shoot 63 all four days and blow away this tournament, but I'm very happy with how I'm hitting the ball, the short game and putting has always been there, so I just need to go ahead and bring it out to the course."

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