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Presidents Cup 2022: Inside Tom Kim's journey from 'the youngest one out there' to PGA Tour winner

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By Tom Kim
September 18, 2022

My real name is Joo Hyung. As a child, I loved Thomas the Tank Engine so much that I had people call me Thomas. It evolved into Tom. Even my older brother calls me Tom. My family moved to Australia after living in South Korea and briefly in China. My parents wanted us to learn English. (It’s one of three languages I speak now.) I played cricket, basketball, Australian football, but nothing clicked until I tried golf at age 6. It came naturally to me. Even though my dad was a mini-tour pro turned teaching pro, golf was never forced on me. But golf was the one thing I never got sick of.

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The cost of living in Australia was rising, so our family chose to move home to Asia. My parents decided that the Philippines was the best place for our family and my golf. I was 13 when we moved there. My parents home-schooled me so that I could play as much golf as possible. In the Philippines, golf isn’t a huge sport. I was lucky; one of the best clubs in the Philippines asked me to play for its team, which gave me full access to the club’s facilities. I remember being so excited that I had a place I could practice. That’s when I got serious about developing my game and turning professional. I’m one of only two players to make it out of that system onto a world-ranking tour.

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I was 15 when I turned pro. I’d won all of the big amateur tournaments in the Philippines. College scouts weren’t coming after me, and my goal was always to turn pro, so I decided to do it early. I thought it’d be the best way to develop my game the fastest. We moved to Thailand because I could play there professionally while I waited to turn 16, the minimum age to compete in Asian Tour Q school. I didn’t make it through Q school but got status by winning three times on the developmental tour.

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I was the youngest one out there. I was proud of that. I was also one of the smallest guys in every tournament. I was short off the tee. Often I was hitting two clubs more into the green than the guys I played with. Figuring out how to beat them helped me improve my accuracy. I got so good with my long irons that they became more reliable than my short irons. Even now, I’m never shaky with a long iron in my hand.

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One of my parents always traveled with me, usually my dad. He caddied for me; we were doing everything we could to save money. I had no financial security. You’re playing for like $50,000 purses. I had to play well just to ensure I could keep playing the next week. I heard guys talk about treating themselves to big dinners after good tournaments; I never did that. I was worried about breaking even. I don’t have to think about that kind of thing anymore, but you never forget that. Even when I book travel now, I remind myself I don’t have to book the cheapest flight. I can stay in a hotel that’s closer to the course, even if it’s more expensive.

After half a season on the Asian Tour, COVID hit. The Asian Tour didn’t play for almost two years. I went back to Korea and competed on the Korean Tour in 2020 and 2021. It was nice to stay in one place. Being comfortable, knowing where home is, where I can practice, eat and sleep, that makes me feel refreshed and mentally clear on the course.

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While in Korea, I had one goal: prepare for Korn Ferry Q school. But somehow, when I got there, I didn’t make it through. At the start of the 2022 season, I had status only on the Asian Tour. But in the next eight months, my whole life changed.

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I got a spot in the Scottish Open and finished third. Then I made the cut at the Open. I accepted special temporary status on the PGA Tour. A few weeks later, I finished seventh in Detroit. The next week I won Wyndham. After the post-round obligations, I got back to my hotel, lay down in bed and tried to soak in what it feels like to be a winner on the PGA Tour, to realize a lifelong dream. I didn’t close my eyes until 1 in the morning—the adrenaline kept me up. I’d earned full PGA Tour status for next year and a spot in the FedEx Cup Playoffs as well as on the Presidents Cup team.

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My parents couldn’t believe I won at first. But they keep me grounded. They said, “Enjoy it a little bit but not to the point where you forget about the past.” They know what I’ve done is great, and what I’m going to do next will be even better.

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Of all the advice my dad has given me, my favorite is: Give it my best now so that when I retire, I won’t feel guilty; I won’t feel like there’s anything else I could have done. My mom stands by that mentality, too. That’s how I’ve been living. If I keep going like this, I know I won’t have any regrets. I’ll know I’ll have done everything I possibly could have done.

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Joohyung "Tom" Kim poses with the trophy after putting in to win on the 18th green during the final round of the Wyndham Championship.

Dylan Buell