Closing In On Greatness

By Tim Rosaforte Photos by J.D. Cuban
June 30, 2008

After the win at Congressional, Kim is fifth in earnings and FedEx Cup points.

Two victories in two months made Eric Larson one happy caddie as he sat in Washington National Airport Sunday night, awaiting a flight home to Florida. "What a special week -- again," he said.

For Larson's player, Anthony Kim, it was a special week. Kim won the AT&T National at Congressional CC in Bethesda, Md., to solidify his claim as the best young player on tour. It was a watershed moment for Kim, who validated his win at the Wachovia Championship in May with this title two months later, and now heads toward his first British Open with his sights on a major championship. It was special even though Kim's pal, tournament host Tiger Woods, was there only in spirit -- unless you include a congratulatory phone call to Kim with CBS cameras capturing the moment.

"He knows golf, he knows how to win and he's not afraid," said Larson, in reference to Kim, not Woods, after the AT&T. Kim shot four rounds in the 60s at Congressional to finish at 12-under 268, two strokes better than Fredrik Jacobson and three better than a group of six others, including Jim Furyk.

What did Woods tell Kim in that call on tournament director Greg McLaughlin's cell phone? "He told me to keep up the hard work," Kim said. "He was very happy for me, and he doesn't see why I can't go out there and win the British Open or PGA Championship." Kim, a playground basketball player, talked of the respect he has for Woods, comparing him to his idol, Michael Jordan. Kim grew up in Los Angeles watching "Tiger's Triple," the video that documents Woods' three U.S. Junior and Amateur wins.

While Kim never won either title, he had the swing to go with his bling. Kim, a fellow Nike player, met Woods during the 2007 Buick Invitational, and Tiger must have liked something about the kid; he immediately teased "A.K." about his gaudy belt buckle, but Kim had a comeback ("Well, Nike hasn't put my initials on anything yet"). A year later, Kim signed with Tiger's management group, IMG. Only 63 victories and 14 majors shy of his idol, Kim is ready to keep going, right up to the Ryder Cup, where, at age 23, he'll be the youngest American player in the event since Woods in 1997.

No asterisks will be attached to either of Kim's victories, even though Woods was on the sidelines with different knee surgeries for both. But of all the young guns to come along since Woods, Kim appears to be the one with staying power. Kim not only followed up his first victory with another, but he relishes the obligation of carrying the game in Woods' absence. "It's time for the young guys to make a statement," Kim said. "Hopefully other people will get to know golf [is more than] Tiger. He has done so much for the game, but at the same time, we need to step up."

Kim stepped on the accelerator at a Congressional that was playing soft. He made 18 birdies and only six bogeys, none in a final-round 65 that made up a three-stroke deficit on third-round leader Tom Pernice Jr.

Both of Kim's victories have come on classic courses -- he won Wachovia at Quail Hollow -- another parallel to potential greatness with Woods, Phil Mickelson and Jack Nicklaus, all-time stars who were also multiple winners at a young age. On those heralded courses, getting up-and-down to keep rounds going is crucial, and Kim is fearless around the greens. Larson compared Kim's short game to that of his former employer, Mark Calcavecchia. Like Woods, Kim grew up playing public courses in less than perfect condition. "I think he's so confident with his swing that even if it doesn't hit it straight, he's comfortable with whatever it takes to get it in that hole," Larson said. "Like Tiger, [Kim] doesn't hit it that great a lot of times, but he still gets the job done."

Woods also influenced Kim with his work ethic and dedication during last year's BMW Championship outside Chicago. Kim showed up at Cog Hill in time to eat a breakfast burrito, hit five putts and head to the first tee. With Woods playing one group ahead of him in the first two rounds, Kim was able to watch how disciplined Tiger is with his pre-round preparation. Woods won and Kim finished T-52. It became one bit of fuel that motivated Kim to get his act together.

"That was the low point in my golf career," Kim admitted. "I wasn't doing myself justice to act that way and prepare that way. I just took a step back and said, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to fo it the right way,' and I've been doing it ever since."

Kim started spending more time at his home in La Quinta, Calif., with Coachella Valley businessman Sterling Ball and his wife, Stacey. They provided straight-up mentorship and instead of coming home at 5 a.m., that became his wake-up time. Kim hasn't become a choirboy or a workaholic, but Larson noticed the difference when he went on the bag full-time after the win at Wachovia. At Quail Hollow they are still talking about how Kim wore the event's blue blazer to his victory dinner at a downtown Charlotte restaurant, and also the next morning when a courtesy car picked him up at the hotel. As Kim said, "I think it's easier to mature faster as a golfer, but definitely as a person, I feel like I've come a long way."