June 3, 2008

Tough Enough

Anthony Kim, who learned about golf and life on the hardscrabble public courses of L.A., returns to a SoCal muny for the U.S. Open as a PGA Tour winner

Kim hooped it up on the Los Angeles playgrounds before making a name for himself in golf.

Kim hooped it up on the Los Angeles playgrounds before making a name for himself in golf.

The edge that comes from grow-ing up on scrappy municipal golf courses in Los Angeles is what drives Anthony Kim. The tough Korean-American kid from the corner of Sixth and Kingsley would play golf at Roosevelt GC with the same fearless abandon with which he would drive the lane in pickup baskeball games at Mac­Arthur Park.

"The difference for me is that Anthony wasn't a golf dork," says Adam Schriber, the swing coach who met Kim at PGA West. "He was more of an athlete turned golfer." Not many years removed from those not-quite-halcyon days, Kim has become much more golfer than athlete, winning the Wachovia Championship last month and climbing to 19th on the World Ranking and seventh on the PGA Tour money list.

And next week Kim will return to his roots, sort of, a Southern California muny player about to play the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines South, a municipal course in La Jolla, about 100 miles south of L.A., where he won the Junior World Championships in 2001.

But it was on the concrete court, not the fairway, where Kim learned the playground meaning of a bad lie. "I was definitely the shortest one there, definitely the skinniest but I'm pretty sure I was the fastest one as well," Kim says. "I was 9 or 10, going up against kids 16 or 17. Every time you'd run down the lane, chances were you were going to get knocked on your butt. If you didn't get back up, you weren't going to get picked [to play again], and I always seemed to be one of the first guys to get picked."

Now 22, Kim doesn't go near the basketball court much anymore—other than to watch the Los Angeles Lakers and his favorite player, Kobe Bryant. Too dangerous, he says. But every time Kim goes on the course, he brings that competitive attitude and those skinned knees with him. "My mom must have aged two years every time I went [to the park]," Kim says. "It was dark, a dangerous area, but it made me ­realize I couldn't be afraid. I'd be by myself, going up against guys 100 pounds heavier. There would be guys selling drugs right next to the courts. There were some guys, you knew they had guns. But you forget all that because you were doing what you wanted to do. Playing basketball helped my golf a lot. Some people say I play with no fear, and I think it's from that."

Kim's demonstrated his lack of fear last month at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, holding off a world-class field and emerging as the hottest new face in the group of twentysomethings that—in the absence of Tiger Woods—have taken over the PGA Tour this spring. Even before that five-stroke breakthough victory, Kim had earned enough money since turning pro in late 2006 to buy a home for his parents in San Diego not far from Torrey Pines, plus he owns places in La Quinta, Calif., and Dallas. The conditions he plays in now, whether on tour or at facilities such as the Madison Club in the California desert, are pristine.

That makes things quite different from Roosevelt, the nine-hole executive course in L.A.'s Griffith Park that was 10 minutes from his parents' oriental-herb business in downtown, before they moved to North Hollywood. "The difference between [Roosevelt] and the private country clubs is you got tons of bad lies," Kim says. "You learned how to play out of bad spots, and you'd still have to get the ball up and down. That's another thing that has helped me become the player I am today. If I get a bad lie out on tour, I never get frustrated or panic. I realize I had those lies a million times playing [Roosevelt]."

It wasn't unusual for Kim, between ages 7 and 14, to take his shag bag, find a hole and practice shots from 150 yards and in. The regulars knew him. Sometimes Kim would have 50 balls on a green, but the others would play through. "They just kept playing," Kim says. "They wouldn't say anything. I think they appreciated the fact that I was working hard."

The other element in Kim's early education as a public golfer was right out of the Lee Trevino Handbook: playing munys such as Rancho Park and Woodley Lakes with $5 in his pocket, trying to cover a series of $80 bets, all at age 13. He laughs about being able to run fast, but the process taught him how to play with pressure—giving him the burlap hide of a hustler.

Anthony Kim

One of the public-course characters he ran into, Kevin Scheller, gives lessons at Woodley Lakes. Kim, whose parents moved him to a home off the first green at PGA West when he was 16, goes back to see Scheller every time he visits L.A. Kim was 14 when they met. "He was shorter, rounder, with glasses," Scheller says. "Same attitude, same talent."

Besides the short game and the playground ball attitude, Scheller sees another dimension that Kim developed in the streets. "I think muny guys tend to play with a little chip on their shoulder because things aren't given to them," Scheller says. "If they're smart, they'll use it competitively. I think [Kim] took pleasure out of beating the country-club kids. That's not anything new."

After breakfast at Colonial, before the second round of the Crowne Plaza Invitational, a bit of that chip was revealed when Kim was asked what he thought about the U.S. Open coming to a facility that is open to the public. "The U.S. Open should be at a public golf course," Kim says. "Not every year but there are players out on tour who come from public courses, and this is the one tournament that everybody has a chance to qualify for. That being said, ­Torrey Pines also has a great history."

No doubt the kid from the L.A. park scene would love to be a part of it.