By Gideon Rubin
Michael Kim was 7 when he moved to the United States from his native South Korea. He knew little about golf at the time, and everything he did know was through the prism of the Tiger Woods phenomena.
“I grew up watching Tiger,” Kim said in a recent media conference call.
“When I just started getting into the game Tiger had just finished his 2001 season. Who could not like golf when that was happening?
Kim still considers himself a huge Tiger Woods fan. But these days, he doesn’t just watch his childhood idol from the comfort of his living room sofa.
The former Torrey Pines High standout is now the competition.
He qualified for and played in the 113th U.S. Open in Merion as an amateur after receiving countless collegiate honors as a UC Berkeley sophomore this year.
“[I] basically grew up idolizing Tiger, so to be at the same tournament as him is awesome,” Kim said three days before the start of the U.S. Open.
And to say Kim held his own at one of the world’s most prestigious tournaments would be an understatement.
Kim placed ahead of Woods, shooting a combined four-over-par 290 to finish an astonishing 17th, the fifth best performance for an amateur in 30 years.
Kim became an overnight celebrity of sorts as he remained in contention in the final day on June 16. He rose to as high as third, trailing by just two strokes after he birdied four of six holes on the back nine on the third day.
He was interviewed by Bob Costas in front of a national television audience on the third day of the tournament.
In addition to finishing ahead of Woods, who placed tied for 32nd, Kim finished ahead of professional tour stars Ian Poulter (tied for 21st), Matt Kuchar (tied for 28th) and Rory McIlroy (tied for 41st), among others.
“That feels awesome,” Kim told reporters in Ardmore, Pa., about being the low amateur. “I had a difficult ending, but the overall week [was] just an incredible experience.”
Kim’s appearance at the U.S. Open followed his being named the Haskins Award winner, an honor bestowed to the best men’s collegiate player voted on by players, coaches and members of the national media.
Previous Haskins Award winners include Woods, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard.
“For my name to be part of that is an unbelievable honor,” Kim said.
The Haskins Award is the latest honor on what’s become a long and growing list.
Kim also received the Jack Nicklaus Award from the Golf Coaches Association of America and was named the Golfweek/Sagarin Player of the Year.
He was named the Pacific-12 Conference Player of the Year, and was a key contributor for Team USA’s Palmer Cup victory over Team Europe.
Kim is just two years removed from his distinguished prep career. He led Torrey Pines to a state title in 2011. He considers his experience at Torrey Pines integral to his development.
“Through the years we had unbelievable teams,” Kim said, noting that virtually everyone on the teams he played on in his junior and senior years have gone on to play at Division I colleges.
“We didn’t have to play that great to beat the other teams, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have that internal competition between us,” Kim said.
The competition between Kim and former Falcons teammate Jay Hwang was especially fierce, Kim recalls. Hwang now plays at UCLA.
“We were the top two guys and there was always that competition between us,” Kim said.
Torrey Pines coach Chris Drake said Kim had just as much impact on the program, with his confidence rubbing off on teammates.
“I think Michael had a lot more confidence in himself,” Drake said. “He let them know it was OK to be confident; not cocky but confident. I think they picked that up from Michael.”
But despite his success in high school, Kim wasn’t a highly-coveted collegiate prospect, in large part because his slight frame doesn’t fit the prototype for today’s distance-oriented game.
“It’s not like I blame any of the college coaches,” Kim said. “If I was a college coach there’s no way I would take a senior in high school that looked like I did.”
Kim, who is currently listed as a 5-foot-11, 150-pounder, doesn’t regularly sign up for longest drive contests. But he’s been able to rely on the precision and accuracy, and an outstanding touch on the greens he admits were developed out of necessity.
“I had to learn to hit super-straight and rely on a good short game,” Kim said. “That was basically the only way I was going to [compete]. It’s definitely paying off now.”
And while nobody saw Kim’s career advancing so far so fast, Drake said it was apparent Kim had unusually high growth potential when he left Torrey Pines.
“We saw glimpses of that potential,” Drake said. “His junior year he shot a 65 in the first round of the CIF tournament. That was sort of our first glimpse of what he could do. I think he still has a lot of potential.”