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Tears of a Clown

Christina Kim, long one of the LPGA Tour's most effervescent personalities, opens up about her battle with depression

December 2012

The last time things fell apart for Christina Kim, she was driving the eight-hour stretch from Prattville, Ala., to her home in Orlando. It was the middle of the night, but she was determined to get there without stopping for a nap. As she got closer to home, the thoughts she had kept at bay since slamming the trunk on her 2012 tour season earlier that evening took over.

During a gas-station pit stop, Kim, 28, saw Halloween decorations in the window. She hadn't celebrated Halloween in more than a decade because the LPGA Tour is usually in Asia that week. But this year Kim hadn't played well enough to qualify for any end-of-season events. Then she realized that for the first time in her life she wouldn't have to fill out an absentee ballot for the presidential election. And in December, the month she had always taken off from golf, the two-time LPGA Tour winner and veteran of three Solheim Cups would have to go to Q school for the first time in her career.

Panic set in as she remembered how much she hates Daytona Beach, Fla., and wondered how she would ever shoot five rounds under par in a qualifying tournament given the way she had been playing. With the emotional snowball in full throttle, Kim drove through tears that turned into sobs, then loud, piercing screams.

It was a pain so deep it felt like a limb had been amputated. She scared herself and pulled off the road. There, on the side of the Interstate at 2 in the morning on Sept. 24, Christina Kim let out two years of despair that she had refused to acknowledge. When she finally got home, she locked herself in her bedroom and remained there for almost three days without turning on a light.

Kim's personal hell began innocently enough with a freak back injury sustained during a massage at the LPGA Tour's stop in Malaysia in fall 2010. Known for her bubbly personality, attention-grabbing style and distance off the tee, Kim suddenly struggled to play without pain and--startlingly--lost two and half clubs of distance. "I fear change," Kim says. "I hate it. When it comes to something as deeply ingrained in me as the yardages that I've played the past 12½ years, that's like finding out that, Oops, I'm a boy. It's just something that you can't even put into words; it was terrifying. And it was very hard for me to admit to myself."

During the next offseason, Kim worked hard to rebuild her swing and once-effortless power. "I started running and training, and it just never came back," she says. "I was disheartened because my ball-striking was something I'd never had to work at. All of a sudden, I put more time and effort into it than I had in my life, and I wasn't seeing results. I started getting short with people. I snapped at my family, and then I became a hermit. The only time I left the house was to practice. There, I'd see the ball end up way too close to me, and I'd get really crabby and scuttle back home. My social life took a beating. I didn't want to see anyone because I was always crying, always frustrated."

In 2011, Kim returned to the tour and told herself to start fresh and accept the fact she was hitting the ball a club and a half shorter. "In reality, I was hitting two and a half clubs shorter but not willing to accept that," she says now. "So I was still, like, I'm in so many bunkers, what the f--- is going on? Why am I chipping so often?"

Christina the jokester was disappearing as fast as the world-rankings points attached to her name. She struggled to make cuts, and thoughts of suicide crept into her head. "I'd be driving down the road and think, All I have to do is steer my car into the oncoming traffic, and I wouldn't have to go through this; I wouldn't have to deal with it." But details like fearing for the person in the other car, or feeling bad about leaving her parents with her house payments, always stopped her. The closest she came to ending her life was in April 2011, at the Ladies European Tour's Nations Cup in Alicante, Spain, where she and Brittany Lincicome were representing the United States. One evening at a players' function in a building overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, she became so overwhelmed with despair that she left her boyfriend, Duncan French, a caddie on the LPGA and LET tours, at the party and found herself on a second-story terrace staring into the ocean.

"I felt like all the fun and joy was suffocating me," she says now. "I looked down, and the water seemed very inviting, even though I can't swim. The solitude and silence that I was seeking, which I couldn't find anywhere in the building because everyone was laughing and living life and being happy, seemed to be in the water." She thought it over, stood there for about 15 minutes while ignoring phone calls from her boyfriend, and finally decided she couldn't do it. The keys to the courtesy car were in her purse, and she didn't want to leave her friends stranded. "As weird as it sounds, something as silly as the thought that Brittany, her mom and Duncan weren't going to be able to get home--and that it's a really nice BMW they gave us that week--stopped me," she says.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 14.8 million American adults--or 6.7 percent of the U.S. population--suffer from Major Depressive Disorder, and more than 30,000 Americans commit suicide every year. "It's a huge medical illness on the order of cardiovascular disease and diabetes," says Dr. Michael Lardon, a San Diego-based clinical psychiatrist who specializes in working with professional athletes and has been treating tour players, including half a dozen major champions, for 21 years. (This is the first year he has no LPGA Tour patients, but he currently works with 10 players each from the PGA and Web.com tours.) "Unfortunately, it lives in the background."

Though the stigma attached to mental-health problems has lifted in recent years, it's still an almost taboo topic in elite sports. "People are embarrassed to talk about it," says John Daly, one of the few PGA Tour players who has spoken about struggles with mental-health issues and substance abuse. Daly, who like Kim has a special connection to the fans and a larger-than-life personality, has been in therapy for four years and says they've been the best years of his life. "You've got to be open about it to someone--your family, maybe not to the world like I am, but to somebody. Live in the future. I can't live in the past--hell, I'd have committed suicide if I'd lived in my past."

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