Tom Kim subdues internal expectations with title defense at Shriners Children's Open
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Written by Paul Hodowanic @PaulHodowanic
LAS VEGAS – A lengthy hallway separates player dining from the locker room at TPC Summerlin. The walls are littered with mementos from historic tournaments in Las Vegas. Photos of Jim Fuyrk, Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, and, at the end of the hallway, Tom Kim.
It commemorates Kim’s historic 2022 victory at the Shriners Children’s Open, marking the first time since Woods that a player won twice on TOUR before turning 21.
Kim was eager to see it. He noticed it wasn’t there when he visited the club earlier this year. And he walked by it daily during this tournament week.
It was a reminder to himself of what he accomplished. The weight of expectations comes swiftly when you win twice on TOUR in three months. For Kim, it was mostly internal expectations. It hit even harder when the third win didn’t come as quickly as the others.
“I always feel I could do more,” he said.
It was also an incentive. Motivation to find that elusive third victory. Motivation to show himself (and the world) his star is only growing. Motivation to keep that photo on the wall.
“I really don't want anyone else's photo up here,” he said.
At least for one more year, there won’t be. Kim shot a final-round 66 to win the 2023 Shriners Chlidren's Open by one shot over Adam Hadwin. Kim is the fourth-youngest golfer to reach three TOUR wins. Only Gene Sarazen, Horton Smith and Woods accomplished the feat at a younger age.
“This one makes it a lot better of a year for sure,” he said.
Tom Kim’s news conference after winning Shriners Children's Open
Kim was in a funk this summer. He wasn’t comfortable over the ball. The ease with which he played when he notched his two wins and was the star of the International Presidents Cup team was replaced by tentativeness. He wasn’t committed to his swing or his strategy. He expected himself to be contending every week. But aside from a T8 at the U.S. Open, Kim went three months without a top-20 finish and missed three cuts.
He sought the advice of coach Chris Como, who has worked with the likes of Woods, Jason Day and Trevor Immelman. The two began working in early July on a few minor swing tweaks, but mainly on Kim’s feel of his move and strategy.
“It was just him understanding when things get off, what's happening, why they're getting off, and just finding his sweet spot more often,” Como said.
The partnership became fruitful quickly. Kim tied for sixth at the Genesis Scottish Open and finished runner-up (albeit by six shots) to Brian Harman at The Open Championship. An ankle injury kept him from defending his maiden TOUR title at the Wyndham Championship, but Kim returned with three solid showings in the FedExCup Playoffs. He finished 20th in the FedExCup. Keen to stay in form, Kim didn’t take much of a break, playing twice on the DP World Tour in September and carding a pair of top-15 finishes.
That brought him to TPC Summerlin feeling good but not fulfilled. By any measure, it had been a successful season. He had notched back-to-back career bests at the majors and easily made it to the TOUR Championship. But those internal expectations were telling him there was more to do.
“You can't say it was a bad year,” he said. “But just personally I feel like I've always expected a lot from myself.”
Defending his Shriners Children’s Open title provided that carrot to chase. Rory McIlroy, Scottie Scheffler and Max Homa were the only players to successfully defend a title this season. It’s company Kim wants to keep. And his inability to defend at Wyndham because of his injury fueled it further.
“It was so hard for me to be -- the week of Wyndham, to just be at home,” he said. “I was so determined to come back to Shriners at least being healthy and at least have a chance.”
Back-to-back rounds of 68 to open the tournament gave him hope. Saturday’s round of 62 solidified the opportunity.
Playing alongside Hadwin in the final pairing, Kim birdied three of his first four holes to set the pace. It seemed Kim was about to separate him from a packed leaderboard with 17 players at or within three shots of the lead entering the round. But bogeys at No. 5 and 6 tempered those thoughts and let a dozen or so players back into the tournament. Kim gathered himself with pars at No. 7 and 8 before making birdie on three of the next five to separate himself again.
Kim led Hadwin by one shot until the par-5 16th. Hadwin went for the green in two but didn’t carry the water short of the green. He made a bogey to Kim’s par, who made two more on 17 and 18 to close it out.
“It was pretty intense really,” Kim said.” It was probably the most emotional final round I've experienced win-wise.”
Tom Kim’s Round 4 winning highlights from Shriners
Kim’s personality is a fascinating dichotomy. There are moments when he shows his age. The 21-year-old can’t help but crack a joke at the first opportunity. He walked out of his winner’s press conference and stopped his agent just to ooh and aah about the watch he had on. There are other times, though, when he’s polished and mature beyond his years. There may be no better example of the contrast than how Kim plans to celebrate the win.
Asked how he planned to spend this win in Las Vegas, seeing as his first win at this tournament a year ago came when he was 20, Kim cracked a smile.
“I knew I was going to get this question,” his grin grew.
What might a 21-year-old fresh off a win and a $1.5 million payday do in Las Vegas?
“I'm going to finish a piece of chocolate that I wanted to finish,” he started, explaining he’s not going to take the red-eye back home, instead opting for the 6:30 a.m. flight. He planned to return to the hotel, order room service, and then eat his chocolate before he called it an early night.
“I brought it from a trip from Europe. It's a Ferrero Rocher white chocolate. It's great. Like I've saved it, and it's going to taste so good tonight.”
Kim likely doesn’t reach this stage of his career without that balance of seriousness and playfulness. He was dominant everywhere he went as a junior, first in the Philippines as a 13-year-old, then in Thailand as a newly turned 15-year-old professional. He was victorious at every stop, winning six times worldwide before arriving on the PGA TOUR.
He’s as hard of a worker as Como has ever been around. And there’s a steadiness to his persona that is beyond his years. “He’s just got the strong desire to be one of the best players, if not the best player in the world,” Como said. His caddie Joe Skovron added they have to tell Kim to take days off. That drive has allowed him to crack the top 20 in the world and become one of the youngest success stories in the sport's history. But it’s the moments of immaturity that have endeared him to a growing fanbase, like when he fell in the mud during the PGA Championship or when he split his pants at the Presidents Cup.
“He's got an intensity that is, I mean, it's as intense as anybody out here,” Skovron said, “but then he can also flash the smile and have fun and joke around and do the whole thing.”
It’s a combination that has Kim looking like the complete package. He inked a sponsorship deal with Nike. He was profiled in GQ magazine. He debuted at the Masters with practice rounds alongside McIlroy, Woods and Fred Couples.
And now he has three wins. Oh, and some white chocolate.
Enjoy it, Tom.