CHARLESTON, S.C. — In just the last two months, 19-year-old Duke freshman Gina Kim has competed in the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur and played a key role in her school's seventh NCAA Women's Championship. Those would seem like a pair of career highlights that would be tough to top, even with what could very well be a long career ahead of her if she decides to go pro.
And still, she may already have topped them both on Thursday at the U.S. Women's Open.
Teeing off in the day's third-to-last group, Kim went out in one-under 34 on the Country Club of Charleston's back nine, her only bogey coming at the treacherous par-3 11th, which played as the hardest hole of the opening round. She made her first birdie at the par-4 13th, then after three consecutive pars she holed out from a greenside bunker for birdie at the par-3 17th, one of 10 birdies the hole yielded all day.
Kim then proceeded to go crazy on the front nine (her back), making three birdies and two bogeys on the first five holes, then holing out for eagle from 141 yards at the par-4 eighth. On the following hole, the par-5 ninth, she nearly made an albatross after lacing a 3-wood from 241 yards that scared the hole. A two-putt birdie gave her a five-under 66, the lowest round ever shot in the championship by an amateur. It left her in a tie for second, one stroke back of Japan's Mamiko Higa.
Asked if this was as locked in as she's ever been on a golf course, Kim didn't hesitate.
"I would say so, yes," she said.
Locked in might have been selling it short. As the 50th-ranked women's amateur in the world, Kim was probably the last amateur many expected to be in this position following Day 1. As it stands, she's five strokes clear of Jennifer Kupcho, who was the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world prior to turning pro for this event, and six clear of Maria Fassi, who was No. 2 before also turning pro this week. Andrea Lee, who will now moved from No. 4 to No. 2 in the world, played a solid round herself, but still sits three back of Kim. Not even Kim saw this coming.
"I've just been blessed with this round," Kim said. "I wasn't expecting much, to be honest. My goal was just to play, have some fun, you know, just stay happy out there. But being able to come out like this, it's definitely more than what I asked for so I'm definitely grateful to the people who supported me and just to my caddie."
Staying happy was easy on Thursday for Kim, whose braces could be seen from a 100 yards away given how much she was smiling as she bounced around the property. It's not too big a leap to say that it may have been the round of her life.
"It feels amazing. This is something I dreamed of as a little girl," said Kim, who is actually making her second appearance in the Women's Open after qualifying and missing the cut a year ago at Shoal Creek. "So being able to finish out strong like that really shows me that I'm ready to be here, and I'm definitely ready to do whatever I can to keep myself in it.
"I'm proud of what I've been able to do, but I'm also proud of my caddie as well, who has really worked hard with me out there on the course."
Kim and her caddie, Ben Sorrells, met at Augusta National for the ANWA, where Sorrells caddies in between his time looping on the Web.com Tour. Even though Sorrells wanted her to "muscle a 9 iron" at the par-4 eighth (Kim went with a "chippy" 8 instead), she couldn't help but praise his effort after the round.
"We've kept in contact since [the ANWA], and I knew he was a really great caddie, and he said the right things at the right time. So I asked if he could come over here and caddie for me this one time, and he said sure. So very grateful that he accepted."
She'll need all the help she can get from him on Friday in Charleston, where temperatures in the 90s and winds of 10 to 20 mph are expected once again. Kim will go off the first tee at 9:01 a.m. alongside Jiyu Jung and Olafia Kristinsdottir. Backing up such an impressive round always proves to be a huge ask, especially for a player whose age still ends with "teen." But whatever she shoots, you can guarantee Kim will have a lot of fun doing it.