December 14, 2009

What's Driving Anthony Kim?

Does he have the passion to be great?

'Now, I do enjoy playing golf. But could I live without golf? Yes.'

'Now, I do enjoy playing golf. But could I live without golf? Yes.'

What's it going to be with Anthony Kim?

Is he really just a talented wastrel cruising for a bruising? Such notoriety sprang from Kim's candor about alcohol-fueled misadventures during his 2007 rookie year, though his "Entourage"-style posse, AK belt buckle and backward hat put him in the "cool" more than "cautionary" column. But at this year's Presidents Cup, when Robert Allenby claimed Kim had returned to his hotel "sideways" in the wee hours before their Sunday singles match and pronounced him golf's "current John Daly," the ledger shifted, despite Kim's vehement denial after his 5-and-3 victory. Even Charles Barkley offered a mild admonishment.

Or is it that Kim, 24, is fighting the good fight common among the most talented and competitive athletes: the struggle to channel the forces within that make them exceptional?

Because of his outsize personality and talent, Kim elicits strong opinions. Though only 5-10 and 160 pounds, he "plays big," physically reminiscent of another squat but ultra-commanding figure, Lee Trevino. Kim's deep voice, his smile and his arm-swinging stride are all big. So are his appetite (he once ate 21 slices of pizza in a sitting) and his heart (he'd like to start a canine refuge). And though his action is as nicely compact as Trevino's, Kim's fast-twitch explosiveness gives him a much bigger game.

There was once no doubt of Kim's big ambitions, what with his open challenge of Tiger Woods and desire to be "the baddest person on the planet," but that's in question now. Not that players have stopped believing Kim has "big ones." As Stewart Cink said of the Europeans at the 2008 Ryder Cup, "It's like they were afraid to play him."

No wonder golf covets Kim. After Allenby's charges, it was telling how quickly the PGA Tour brought in the public-relations fire extinguishers. Kim has become vital in the tour's promotion of its philanthropic efforts, as well as an important figure in appealing to the burgeoning Asian market. There's tacit agreement that he has a chance to be a much-missed throwback: a great player who is also a great character. Which is why there is plenty of concern about Kim's winless and generally crummy 2009. Though Kim has cited nagging injuries and fatigue from globe-trotting, there's no denying a pattern.

"It's been that way since I was a junior," admits Kim.

"A steady year, and then the next year, not so steady. Complacency is a fair word. I got by in junior and college golf on my competitiveness, because I just really hate losing. But it's a different animal out here. You get complacent out here, and you fall behind real fast."

Complementing the complacency is Kim's ambivalence toward his sport. As a gifted athlete who excelled in basketball and loves watching football and ultimate fighting, Kim admits he can't help finding golf a bit nerdy. He candidly says that if he were 6-4, he'd be aiming for the NBA. Asked straight up if he loves golf, his answer, after a pause, is a bit tortured.

"Well, I love competing," he says. "Whether it's golf, whether it's basketball, whether it's talking trash to my buddies, especially those who play other professional sports, I love running my mouth and just being competitive. Now, I do enjoy playing golf. But could I live without golf? Yes."

Not the answer that would come from Trevino, or Woods, or probably any Hall of Famer. When it comes to greatness, love of the game is the major difference-maker. Kim's talent might leave him without a discernible weakness in his physical game, but it's clear that even from the time Mark O'Meara anointed him the best young player since Woods, Kim hasn't come close to taking Woods' path to precision. Whereas Woods knows God is in the details, Kim has largely treated the details as the devil.

Until relatively recently, it wasn't unusual for highly talented players to misspend their early years on tour chasing fun. Four-time major winner Raymond Floyd, who as a Ryder Cup assistant was highly impressed with Kim's game and demeanor, let the good times roll through most of his 20s. And like Kim, Floyd was a frustrated team-sport jock. But Floyd turned himself around after marrying in 1973. "I caught myself in time," he says. "Maria made me realize I wasn't respecting my gift."

Kim learned the game under his admittedly strict and controlling father, Paul, though they have grown closer in recent years. "It's not that I have a problem with authority," says Kim. "It's that I like to do what I want to do."

No one around Kim is ever quite sure what that is going to be, but his inner circle was pleased when he reacted to Allenby's comments with determination rather than despondence. Before the World Match Play in Spain, Kim had his longtime coach, Adam Schriber, come to Dallas for a week of hard practice, the first such "grind" session the two had had all year. Kim lost to Ross Fisher in the final but administered a seething but dignified 5-and-4 dusting of Allenby in the semifinals.

"I think AK is back in a good place," says Schriber. "I'm going to believe all the actions. Right now, the words and the actions are good."

It's a gentle reference to Kim's skill at disarming with charm. Still, he didn't completely duck a hard question about whether he has learned, as Floyd did, to respect his gift.

"I don't really feel like I did my rookie year, but I'm learning how to deal with my golf game a little better," he says. "Get into the mind-set of Look, I play professional golf for a living, and I have to go put in the time whether I'm hitting it good or not. I feel like when I have a bad year, the next year I'm bound to play well. And I have no doubt in my mind that I'm going to next year."

Odds are he will. But what about the year -- and years -- after that? If Anthony Kim does what he wants to do, what's it going to be?