The two sides of Si Woo KimThe American Express’ defending champ can author confounding performances
January 18, 2022
By Ben Everill , PGATOUR.COM
Si Woo Kim one-club driver challenge at The American Express
Paging Pat Perez. Si Woo Kim is wondering when you might pay up.
The young South Korean – he’s still just 26 years old -- is one of the TOUR’s most enigmatic (read: fiery) talents, but Perez is indebted to him after Kim managed to keep it cool for the last eight months. Perhaps that will help Kim channel his best play more often, and help fans see the wicked sense of humor and infectious personality that Kim keeps hidden in competition.
His talent is undeniable. He earned his TOUR card when he was just a teenager, and is the youngest to ever win THE PLAYERS after earning the title at age 21. Kim shot a 60 in his first victory, at the 2016 Wyndham Championship, as well. He is the defending champion of this week’s The American Express.
But for all his incredible accomplishments, Kim can confound with his struggles. Forrest Gump’s famous saying about a box of chocolates also can apply to Kim’s game. You never know what you’re going to get.
Last year, he shot the highest recorded score on a par-3 in TOUR history. He hit five balls in the water on TPC Southwind’s 11th hole and signed for a 13. The next week, he was in a playoff at the Wyndham Championship.
His win at the 2021 American Express came just a year after he shot a first-round 87 in the same event and withdrew with a bad back. Since the start of the 2016-17 season, Kim has 37 rounds on TOUR of 5 over or worse. He has 49 rounds of 66 or better in the same time frame.
Kim has snapped more clubs than he cares to remember, or count. But it is a source of great pride when he says he hasn’t broken one in over eight months. And that is where Perez comes in.
Last April, Kim was in contention in the second round of the Masters Tournament when he snapped his putter in frustration on the 15th hole. He had to use his fairway wood on Augusta National’s famously slick putting surfaces the rest of the way, but still finished the round just three off the lead.
Snapping sticks had become almost routine for Kim, and Perez wagered $100,000 that Kim couldn’t stop doing it. But he has, which begs the question: When does Perez have to pay up? Kim’s caddie, former TOUR player Brian Vranesh, figured the end date should have been the turn of the calendar. But the two players didn’t make it clear, so Perez is technically still alive in the wager. That hasn’t stopped Kim from reminding the veteran Perez, always with a big smile, that he hasn’t forgotten about the $100K.
Kim says his days of snapping clubs are behind him; he’s trying to mellow out. One settling influence has been age. Another has been his relationship with Ji Hyun Oh, a Korean LPGA Tour winner.
He arrives for this week’s title defense ranked 39th in the FedExCup thanks to four top-25s in seven starts, and the importance of his performances is magnified with this being a Presidents Cup year. Kim’s lone appearance on the team came five years ago, but a full-strength Si Woo would undoubtedly be a boon to Trevor Immelman’s squad.
Kim’s resolve continues to be tested, but he’s also shown he can compete with the best. His performance in the final two weeks of last year’s regular season is Exhibit A. How else do you explain a player setting an unfortunate scoring record one week and finishing runner-up the next?
It helped that Kim was able to have fun with the moment, as an opportunity to show off his sense of humor. He was reliving the drama with Kevin Na while they flew from Memphis to Greensboro, North Carolina, for the Wyndham Championship, when they turned Kim’s misfortune – and Na’s 16 a few years earlier at the Valero Texas Open – into a fun piece of content on social media.
“He was telling me about the 13 and I was like, ‘Is that a record?’ and turns out it was, so of course now he has that record and I have the record for (highest score on) par-4s,” Na said.
The pair posed for a photo and posted it on social media, with Kim holding up three fingers and Na four.
“Highest par3 score ever by me. 13 today. Highest par4 ever score 16 by @kevinna915. Record breakers here!!😂 and finish(ed) with 14 club(s) 👏👏,” Kim posted to Instagram clearly proud of his restraint.
On Korean social media he added, “I set a new record for the most at-bats on a par-3 today and Kevin Na, the record holder for the most at-bats on a par 4, is next to me.” They said they’ve turned their ‘disasters’ into a ‘memory’ with wide smiles.
“It’s just his character and my character,” Na said. “I can make fun of myself and I’m OK with it and he is the same way. He’s got a great sense of humor and I know his English isn’t perfect, but you’d be surprised how much he understands and what he says. He has some great one-liners that he delivers in English, let me tell you.”
Na, who has become something of a mentor to Kim, believes the heretofore hot-and-cold Kim’s budding maturity will translate to lower scores, and greater consistency, going forward.
“He’s fearless,” Na said. “As a player he is very aggressive and that’s why he is a little bit up and down. When he is hot and aggressive, he’s going to make a ton of birdies and that’s how he wins. He gets in the zone and he is just dangerous. Dangerously good. And he can blow fields away.
“But sometimes he plays too aggressive,” Na continued. “I’ve seen that, and it can go the wrong way. And it’s been his composure. He tends to get hot, and it costs him strokes out there. But he’s young and working on that. He has all the talent in the world and I keep telling him how good he is and he has a lot of good years ahead of him.”
Kim has always been precocious. The son of a scratch golfer, he got started in the game by tagging along with his father to the driving range. Si Woo made his mind up at 8 that he would play professionally, and won four national titles before making the Korean national team at 16.
He was 17 years, 5 months and 6 days old when he made it through the final PGA TOUR Q-School in 2012, making him the youngest-ever to earn a TOUR card through the qualifying tournament. But regulations meant he couldn’t play on TOUR until he turned 18 in late June of 2013, leaving him with just six starts to keep his card. He missed the cut in all of them.
Back on the Korn Ferry Tour for two seasons, he won in 2015 to graduate back to the big stage. He wasted little time in collecting his first TOUR win, at the Wyndham in August of 2016.
“People forget he got his TOUR card at 17 and he’s now only 26 years old,” Vranesh says. “I was fortunate enough to play out here for one year and I didn’t get here until I was 31. I couldn’t even imagine what he’s done at his age. At 26 I was trying to find $1,000 to play on the Gateway Tour and he’s a veteran playing for millions every week. And look, maturity takes time no matter how good you are. But Si Woo is taking important steps in life, and I think the growth will continue.
“We had some issues last year and he took a look in the mirror after some of those and now he knows he’s a top player and he’s on TV a lot and you have to act the right way at times.”
A win followed at the following year’s PLAYERS. He was two back starting the final round but won by three after an impressive short-game performance. That win, at the site of countryman K.J. Choi’s biggest victory, earned him a spot on the International Team for the 2017 Presidents Cup.
“At first he was pretty quiet and stayed in the background a little but as the week went on you could see his personality grow,” teammate Marc Leishman says. “He certainly wasn’t short on confidence, and I say that in a good way. It was a little surprising but good to see his passion.”
Kim went 1-2-0 but also authored one of the International Team’s most memorable moments, when he tried to emulate Patrick Reed’s famous shush in the midst of the United States’ record rout. Few would dare such a gesture during such a lopsided competition. It takes a certain amount of gall.
Two down on the 11th, Kim watched Daniel Berger chip in from off the green to seemingly go 3 up. But he calmly knocked in his birdie putt before giving the raucous New York crowd the shush sign.
While he was unable to find his way back to the team that nearly pulled off the upset in Australia in 2019, Kim is intent on catching the eye of 2022 International Team captain Trevor Immelman.
“I hope I can get back on the team,” Kim says. “I want to compete with the best players in the world and we have a little unfinished business there. I need to focus on consistent results to get back there. I need to be more consistent for sure. Some weeks I am really good, and others really bad, and I can’t keep doing that. I’m working on it.”
That’s music to Immelman’s ears.
“Sometimes I think the problem with Si Woo is he hits the ball so effortlessly perfect a lot of the time that he holds himself to that standard almost all of the time,” Immelman says. “It’s pretty hard to hit that mark repeatedly.
“But as he gains experience and finds ways to work around his tough times, he becomes a player to watch for sure. Anyone who wins THE PLAYERS has the skills to beat anyone on their day.”