Las Vegas is a town that preys on false hopes, where today’s sure-things are gateways to tomorrow’s losses. Yet, against the desert backdrop, Tom Kim continued to prove why the high aspirations he carries have not been cast upon him but earned, with a performance that puts to rest any notion last year’s feats were nothing more than a heater—and begs to ask what lies on the horizon.
Kim made good on a Saturday 62 with a closing 66, holding off Adam Hadwin by one shot en route to defending his title at the Shriners Children’s Open.
“It's very sweet,” Kim said on Sunday evening. “I feel like the first two wins came at me really quick. It took a lot longer than my first two wins to get my third one. But it's very sweet. This is really for the team. I've worked really hard personally, but without their help, I would not even be close to getting my third win.”
Kim came to prominence last summer when he shot a final-round 61—and overcame a quadruple-bogey 8 on his first hole—to capture the Wyndham Championship at age 20 by five shots. The South Korean went from promising player to potential star, however, with his performance at the Presidents Cup. His recklessly entertaining play was matched by an energy that can best be described as a golden retriever on Red Bull. For arguably the first time in its existence, the Presidents Cup provided a moment (or perhaps it was the player that gave the event a moment). Whatever the case, while the list of Hall-of-Fame international players is long, the list of those who have resonated with an American audience is short … if even a list at all. Kim’s display at Quail Hollow showed he had the game and personality to assume that mantle, with a win just weeks later at the 2022 Shriners.
And since his Sin City win, Kim has played well. Entering the week he had 10 finishes of T-11 or better over the past year, a stretch highlighted by a runner-up finish at the Open Championship. Conversely, the story of the past season in golf could be told without Kim. That’s not a shot at him or what he’s done or where he could go; the man has only been legally able to drink in this country for three months, after all. But given his fast ascent, coupled with golf’s inclination to facilitate the occasional hot stretch before turning its back on said recipient, Kim had slightly faded into the background as the sport winds down and heads into 2024. Even as this tournament’s defending champ, playing despite already locking up his top-50 status for next year, Kim’s participation this week felt like a miscellaneous note to the headline of Lexi Thompson’s sponsor's exemption and ensuing play. That may seem unfair to Kim and perhaps it was, yet with expectations come impossibly high standards and responsibility. That is the price of stardom.
“I think those two wins, I wasn't really … I was playing my game,” Kim said. “I wasn't thinking about, OK, I need to win this event, I need to do this. No, I played and it happened. It happened very naturally. It happened very quick. I think by the end of last year, two wins on the PGA Tour all of a sudden, ranked 13th in the world. Suddenly you feel like you're right there and you need to do something extra or something. But it really wasn't. I felt like I almost added a lot of pressure towards myself to perform really well this year. But really it's been a very big learning curve for me, and it's very humbling to be able to experience what I've experienced this year.”
Then the weekend came, and Kim turned in a nine-under 62 during the third round at TPC Summerlin, giving him a share of the lead with Hadwin and Lanto Griffin. But with 14 players within three of the lead, Sunday promised a horse race. Out of the gate, Kim tried his best to end it early with three birdies on his first four holes, but back-to-back bogeys at the fifth and sixth kept the rest of the pack close. An early 62 from Eric Cole put the former journeyman at 18 under, a number that was matched by a handful of others that seemed to be the number to beat. Kim crossed that threshold at the 13th, and appeared to secure the tournament at the drivable par-4 15th. Kim sprayed his drive to the right and his second just cleared a greenside bunker, but he cleaned up the remaining 12 feet for birdie just seconds after Hadwin’s eagle try lipped out. Though maintaining a one-shot lead over Hadwin not seem imperative at the moment it made what happened next all the more decisive.
At the par-5 16th Kim hit his approach first, landed his second safely on the green. Hadwin could not say the same. The Canadian could not hold his follow-through, his arms falling to his side and his head pointed towards the ground, unable to watch his ball and hopes disappear into a pond.
“It was like 193 front, 206 pin. It really honestly was just a perfect little cut 6 [iron],” Hadwin said. “The ball still covers the front edge as long as it's up the center of the green, and I completely whiffed it, up and out of it, and unfortunately one of my worst swings of the day at the least opportune time.”
Hadwin managed to hit his next shot close but could not convert the save; on a hole where he desperately needed a 4 or a 3 he walked away with 6. A score that proved an especially tough swallow after Kim three-putted for par. Kim played the 17th and 18th without incident, and Hadwin’s birdie at the 18th came after the issue was no longer in doubt. Kim was a winner once more.
“It was pretty intense really. It was just me and Adam, and I feel like it was almost match play once we got past 14,” Kim said. “It was just him and me. It was whether I wanted it or he wants it, and we both just see what happens. It was probably the most emotional final round I've experienced win-wise the last year and a half.”
With his win, Kim accomplished a rare feat. Since the new FedEx Cup Fall is an extension of the 2022-’23 season, Kim became the first player since Byron Nelson in 1944 to win the same event in the same campaign. He also became the youngest player in more than 110 years to defend a PGA Tour-recognized title. "Yeah, for sure," Kim said when asked if he's coming back next fall. "Three-peat sounds nice."
Of course, the week itself was a pretty rare thing, too: Leaving Las Vegas a winner. And perhaps a week that moves Kim back to the forefront of the game as the calendar turns, particularly into a Presidents Cup season. That’s because Tom Kim is proving the game he plays is not a game of chance, but a game of skill. There are no sure-things in golf, but the prospects of who is becoming and where he can go? Those are far from unfounded hopes.