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Tour pro finds his niche as unexpected social media star

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Michael Kim has attracted an enthusiastic social media following over the past year.

Sean M. Haffey

January 22, 2024

Michael Kim is no dummy. In the grand pecking order of professional golf, he understands he is a journeyman who has played on the PGA Tour for the better part of eight years. He's claimed one victory in 198 starts, and still isn’t recognized by average golf fans at tournaments, let alone restaurants or grocery stores. Worse sometimes, he’s mistaken for other, more high-profile Asian-born players on tour.

At least Kim has a sense of humor about it. Last season, when one website pulled a tweet from Kim but imposed it over a photo of Si Woo Kim, the "other" Kim lamented on Twitter (now X), “My career goal is not to win the Masters, nor is it a certain amount of majors or tour wins. My goal is for just ONE calendar year, have the media use photos of ME and not another Asian golfer when making a post about me. Impossible? Maybe, but they say set lofty goals.”

Hilarious, because Kim nailed a touchy subject with wry humor that is so often lacking on social media. And he's duplicated those kinds of takes, and more, over the last year, the 30-year-old having found a popular niche in golf that he never expected.

At the start of the 2023 season, Kim—who is Michael S. Kim on X—wasn’t a blip on the Twitter radar, but as of today he has more than 107,000 followers—many of those acquired just in the last few months. And if that is but a fraction of Rory McIlroy’s 3.2 million followers, that’s hardly the point. McIlroy isn’t providing fans many funny stories about famous player interactions or pouring over regular golfer’s swing videos to offer them tips. Kim is doing that with surprising regularity, and people are loving it to the point that he is a little shocked by it.

“I distinctly remember last June being on a charter flight going to the U.S. Open with [CBS commentator] Amanda Balionis, and she said, ‘You’re actually gaining a following,’” Kim recalled last week as he played a practice round ahead of The American Express. “And I said, ‘Ah, I don’t know.’ And she said, ‘No, no, you are.’ And I was, like, ‘Well, I guess so.’

“No one recognized me at PGA Tour events before,” Kim said, “and now people do every once in a while. They tell me, ‘I enjoy your Twitter posts,’ and stuff like that. If they recognize me over a different Joe Schmoe out here, then you know it’s making a difference.”

Kim’s stature among his peers has been boosted, too. A number of players have commented on his tweets, including three-time major winner and former European Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington. In a post last December, the Irishman said, “If you love golf and you’re not following Michael S. Kim, you are genuinely missing out on some of the best content from a young current @pgatour player.”

Last season, Kim was back on the PGA Tour after he had lost his card the previous year, dropping down to the Korn Ferry Tour. And, while working with coach Sean Foley, he enjoyed a resurgence in 2022-23 by finishing with four top-10s, eight top-25s and ending up 84th on the FedEx Cup points list.

Along the way, Kim decided he wanted to raise his profile with fans, and in that he had the perfect mentor in Max Homa, the tour’s preeminent Twitter master (631,000 followers) who is a close friend of Kim’s from their days as teammates at Cal. (It was Kim who was arguably the more accomplished player at Berkeley, where he won both the Jack Nicklaus Award and Fred Haskins Award in 2013 as the NCAA player of the year.)

“Max is the catalyst for me taking this a bit more seriously, for sure,” Kim said. “It was just kind of seeing how his following had grown so much. I wasn’t going to roast people’s swings, and I didn’t want to be kind of your typical pro, taking pictures of the course and saying, ‘Happy to be here.’ No one was looking for that.”

What Kim discovered is that ardent fans crave inside juice about the lives of tour players: how they practice; where they stay; how much they pay for travel and caddies; what they do in their off time. That seemed to strike a chord, so Kim then began offering swing tips to average hacks who sent him videos. He once even offered a live lesson in a simulator when he was delayed at the Istanbul airport. (Given the randomness of it, there were no takers.)

“I’ve seen a lot of different coaches throughout my career now, and I think I’m a bit more knowledgeable than I used to be,” Kim said. “Golf is really hard. Hopefully, if I can help a few people here and there, it would be cool and makes it worth it. It’s good when I say, ‘Hey, try this,’ and they reply to me the next day that things were way better.”

Does he see some pretty awful swings?

“For sure,” Kim said. “You realize how much information is out there, and golf is so personalized. You see five different things on Golf Digest about how to do this, and they’ll be five completely different ways. It’s kind of hard to know which one is good for you.”

Some of Kim’s best stuff comes from his personal experiences on tour. One of his more popular stories is about his first meeting with Tiger Woods. It was at the 2019 Players Championship, and Kim accompanied friend Zach Johnson to a table where Woods was alone and eating lunch. There were no introductions made, so Kim made sure to leave his player badge face up on the table.

The rest of the post: “After we finish eating, Tiger gets up to leave, and he says, ‘Have a good week Michael.’ Now I tell everyone, yeah, Tiger and I def know each other. We’re peers.”

Kim doesn’t attract many negative comments, but that’s in large part due to the vibe he puts out. His musings are insightful, well thought out and almost always positive. Even when Kim has a mild social-media dustup, he’s got a sense of humor about it. When he got a mixed reaction to his views on his use of AimPoint for putting, he quipped on a post, “Gotta love the plumb bob crowd still yelling from the back … golf’s version of the flat earth theory.”

Kim ditched Instagram for its “fake reality,” but Twitter/X seemed perfect for the role he envisioned because he’s a self-described introvert. In this way, he could put himself out there, but not in an overly social way. “Maybe I do like the attention,” Kim said with a smile. His friends circle on the tour is fairly small and includes Homa, Zach Johnson, Si Woo Kim, Ben An and K.H. Lee.

Kim is definitely taking this new responsibility seriously. In his weeks at home, Kim said, he gives himself a time slot of noon each day to do his social-media stuff. He takes down notes in his phone and eventually converts them to posts. Sometimes, he spends no more than 15 minutes; others, he might take an hour or more. That was particularly true when he wanted to celebrate reaching 75,000 followers by doing 75 swing analyses.

“I didn’t realize how many that was,” Kim said, laughing. “I think I got to 60-something, and I literally could not stare at my phone any longer and stopped.”

Is he finding the attention addictive?

“One hundred percent,” Kim said. “It’s a dopamine hit. I remember reading that social media is a bit like alcohol in a sense. It’s clearly not great for you, but if you use it in a good, fun setting, it has fun benefits.

“I kind of look at it that way. I certainly don’t want to go too deep into it, but I do feel it has helped me grow my brand, so to speak. More people have recognized me, which is good for a professional athlete.”

Having a higher profile has taken on a greater consequence on the PGA Tour since it started the Player Impact Program that has put millions more dollars into the pockets of the game’s most popular players. People will sometimes ask Kim if that’s what motivates him to be more on social media, and he always responds with a firm shake of the head.

“That’s funny to me,” he said. “Never once have I ever thought that, even if I had 10 million followers, it was about the PIP. And people are confused by that. The PIP was never meant to be a social media award. It’s about being on TV more than anything.”

Even with the newfound attention, Kim still has a career to nurture. He excelled in college, but has found the pros to be something of a “roller coaster.” His lone tour victory was certainly a signature win, with Kim scoring 27 under and capturing the 2018 John Deere Classic by a record-setting eight shots.

Since then, there have been plenty of ups and downs, but Kim has a renewed confidence because of his work with Foley. This week, he heads to his hometown of San Diego for the Farmers Insurance Open following a strong showing at The American Express, where Kim birdied the last three holes to score 65 on Sunday. His 25-under total tied him for sixth place.

There was bigger news on the day, with Nick Dunlap becoming the first amateur to win on the PGA Tour in 33 years. But Kim was staying in his newfound social-media lane, on his phone and tapping out a tweet at a California fast-food institution somewhere off Interstate 10 in the desert. He offered yet another tasty tidbit for his growing audience: