Just over ten years ago . . .
Yes, Anthony Kim said, he’d be happy to talk and pose after he hit a few more balls. On a sunny spring day at TPC Las Colinas, on a pre-Nelson Wednesday practice tee crowded with the world’s best golfers, I leaned in close to observe the wonder of the age.
Young Mr. Kim crushed it. And except, perhaps, for Lee Trevino, I’d never seen such solid contact. A ball struck by his four-iron zoomed out and up like an F-16 off a carrier deck, then parachuted back to the surface of Irving with a subtle drift to the right.
Am I watching the next Ben Hogan? I wondered, but only for a moment. For while The Hawk’s unadventurous, no-logo clothing walked the bland fashion line between banker’s blue and CPA gray, Anthony put out a far different vibe. Large Nike swooshes danced on his pastel-colored shirt and white hat, and in the middle of the ensemble resided an Android cell phone-sized, custom-made belt buckle, all silver and gold, like a rodeo champion’s, and with “AK” executed in rhinestones. Or in diamonds. I didn’t ask.
While a photographer snapped in a makeshift studio in one of the Four Seasons villas near the practice ground, Kim and a dozen other pros told me one at a time how they hold the damn thing (“Get a Grip” Sports Illustrated, March 10, 2008).
“My dad (Paul) was a good player,” Anthony said, “but did I get my grip from him? I hope not! The only similarity is that we both put the right hand on the bottom. I learned my grip from magazines. I think about the grip before each shot…”
Kim was charming and voluble, and seemed completely unawed by spotlights and inquisition from a guy with a notebook. And he was about to go on a tear. In May ‘08, the crew-cut 23-year Dallas resident from Los Angeles won on tour for the first time, at the Wachovia Championship. In June, he scored a top ten in the US Open. In July, he won again, at the AT & T National, and made the US Ryder Cup team. Phil Mickelson-Kim went 1-1-1 in team play, then, on Sunday, September 21, in the first singles match, Anthony authored his signature win in professional golf, an electrifying 5&4 beat down of Sergio Garcia. USA! USA! Team US, which had lost five out of the previous six Ryder Cups, won for a change.
“The Anthony Kim of 2008 was so impressive,” Mickelson recalled. “He had guts. He wasn’t afraid of anyone or anything. He had every shot, and he just kept coming, making birdie after birdie.”
His picture in my magazine piece looked great. “There is Zen in the grip,” I wrote. “All of the game’s contradictions—simultaneous demands for control and release, delicacy and power—are contained in the hands.”
Anthony Kim enjoyed more success after ’08, winning the 2010 Shell Houston Open, in a playoff with Vaughn Taylor. Twice he signaled his firm intent to win the Masters: in 2009, he made 11 birdies, a record, in a second round 65. He sprinted to the finish the next year in Augusta with four birdies and an eagle on the back nine on Sunday, good for third place. But then…The glory that seemed inevitable evaporated. He would not replace his Nike stablemate Tiger as the face of American golf. Half a dozen times he got hurt, rehabbed, and got hurt again, and each injury seemed to be caused by the one before it. There was the very interesting, very complicating matter of a massive payout from an insurance company. When he holed out for a first round 74 in the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship, then withdrew, he’d hit his last shot on tour. He was 27. Is it fair to say he lost his grip?
AK ain’t sayin’. Like Ben Hogan before him, Kim rarely speaks to the media. His last interview, with the Associated Press, took place in 2015. Golf Digest has been asking for a sit-down for years, and being turned down, so its editors get a little verklempt at mere confirmations that he is still alive: SPOTTED: Anthony Kim at a Dallas pet store (Golf Digest.com, 5/7/16) and SPOTTED: Anthony Kim on a golf course! (9/3/16). Turned out he was watching Nancy Lieberman’s charity event, not playing in it.
We reached out, too. “Anthony’s not taking any interviews right now,” says Brodie Flanders, who was Kim’s roommate at the University of Oklahoma, and his caddie on tour for two years. “He’s essentially been in hibernation for some time. He’s very private.”
But not in hiding, not exactly. I SPOTTED Kim in courtside seats at a Mavericks game! two years ago, his straight black hair then worn quite long, with a very pretty girl at his side. Back in the not too distant day he had a regular table at a now defunct Dallas bar/restaurant on McKinney called So & So’s, where he liked to order a bottle of Patron for the table. He had a seat—and maybe still does—at a high stakes poker game at the Ritz-Carlton; as we’ll see, Anthony is an excellent gambler. He’s hit balls at Craig Ranch in McKinney, and he’s worked out, played, and practiced at Lakewood Country Club a number of times, most recently in 2016.
“He looked great, just like before he got hurt,” says Lakewood head pro Gilbert Freeman. “I could always tell when Anthony had been on our range, from the big square bare spot his divots made.”
Tracing the rise and demise of Anthony Ha-Jin Kim must begin with a look at his parents, both of whom were born in South Korea. If you’ve been paying attention at all to women’s golf, you’ve noticed the stunning domination of the LPGA by wave after wave of Seoul sisters. Anthony’s parents, owners of an Asian herb store in LA’s Koreatown, followed the all-in style of Hyun Kyong and Byun Wook Wie, Michelle’s mom and dad, and Joon Chul and Jeong Suk Pak, parents of Se Ri, and many others on the ladies’ tour. It’s cultural: the success of the child is a matter of face for Korean couples with children. All resources are expended for a talented son or daughter. The father is the taskmaster, the mother is the on-site support system. The child honors the parents with hard work and achievement.
To further their son’s nascent golf career, and at no small expense, Miryoung and Paul Kim set up their 16-year-old prodigy 130 miles east, in a condo in La Quinta, California, hard by the first green at PGA West. Little Anthony played, practiced, and won tournaments for the La Quinta HS Blackhawks; mom and dad sold ginseng back home during the week, and the three reunited on weekends. When Anthony won a junior event one summer, but not by enough, Paul dumped the trophy in the trash. The three of them took college recruiting trips together, and chose the University of Oklahoma.
“What was different about Anthony was his talent, which was a lot more than most,” recalls Jim Ragan, then OU’s head coach. In other ways, Ragan says, the freshman phenom from SoCal was “typical”. Most of them are knuckleheads. Not boys, not yet men. You never know if they’re going to get better at handling life.”
But this young man looked like he couldn’t miss, at least in the golf part. Donnie Darr, then an OU assistant, remembers “A stripe show” on the range every day. Long, high, towering cuts. He could hit it as far as he wanted to. And he was such a great guy to be with.”
The main elements of Kim’s life in Norman were golf, working out, and partying. He did all three, according to Ragan, “at 150%.” The coach thinks he overdid the workouts, injuring himself in small ways that would become significant later.
In his first professional tournament, the sensational rookie finished T2 at the 2006 Valero Texas Open. Congratulations, Mr. Kim, here’s a check for $298,666.67.
“Worst thing that could’ve happened to me,” he said later. “I was attracted to shiny things, shiny people. I don’t know if things ever got out of control, but they were moving way too fast.”
Anthony became AK. He bought a big black Bentley ragtop and a big brick house near Preston and Royal. The belt buckles, his fast, funny trash talk, the millions in Nike endorsement money—and that he was obviously having a hell of a good time—maybe all this engendered some jealousy among his peers. There were rumors, which, he said in that 2015 AP interview, “tainted my reputation, and I didn’t have a great reputation to begin with. I never tested positive and they tested me more than anyone.”
In the midst of his sensational social and professional success, AK continued to work out and practice as always, like a man on a mission. He invested a Bentley’s worth of winnings in a backyard enhancement: two bunkers and synthetic chipping and putting surfaces with three cuts of ersatz grass. The extra homework must have helped propel him to those great results in 2010.
Then, unfortunately, came a warning shot: tendinitis in the left thumb and wrist. The injuries cascaded—sore hand seemed to lead to damaged rotator cuff led to tender labrum led to blown out Achilles tendon led to jacked-up spine. Six or even surgeries. But Kim had placed a bet far bigger and bolder than any of his bluffs or check-raises at the poker table. He’d done what college prospects do when they expect to be taken in the first three rounds of the NFL draft: he insured himself. The policy covered what’s called “loss of value” from an injury, not mere disability. Kim had a lot value to lose: in ’08, he’d finished sixth on the money list with $4.7 million, and he put away another $6 million from Nike.
The insuree couldn’t play. The insurer had to pay. The policy had cost in the mid six figures. The payout—estimated—was between $15 and 20 million. And a debate erupted about this claim game. Does such insurance amount to a moral hazard? Does it incentivize getting paid instead of competing? We can’t decide if AK was a cool realist calculating the odds or if he had bet against himself. The Kim case confuses those of us outside the ropes, because, while we don’t mind wounded football, baseball, or basketball warriors having a financial cushion when their bodies break down, pro golfers have always had to work for every paycheck. Like most of us do.
By all reports, AK attacked rehab like he attacked the par fives at Augusta. Following knee surgery, Barry Warner, the venerable Houston sports radio host, found himself on a treadmill next to the golf pro at Memorial-Hermann Rehabilitation Hospital in Houston. Warner listened for bitching and didn’t hear any; he watched for the half-effort he’d seen from other rehabbing pro athletes, but saw only sweat and effort.
“I asked him, ’how much does it kill you on Monday to have watched the guys you used to beat on Sunday?’” Warner recalled.
“And he said, ‘I’m in here today so I can beat those guys a year from now.’ He’s a righteous dude. I didn’t sense that he was bullshitting me.”
Late in ’18, we tried again to get a line on Kim. In vain: intermediaries wouldn’t talk and didn’t, I suspect, forward our messages. Our only hit was this bit of insight from former AVIDGOLFER cover boy David Winkle, the big agent with Hambric Sports Management.
“I saw him about a year ago, between gates at DFW,” Winkle recalls. “We had a nice chat for about ten minutes. He looked great and he seemed happy.
“No, I didn’t ask what he’s doing now. And maybe no one’s telling you what Anthony’s up to because they don’t know either.”
People aren’t one thing, nor do they stay the same thing. The ebullient performer AK resides in the same body with a very private man. That Anthony Kim remains hidden from a scene he seemed poised to dominate is a loss for golf fans, certainly, but what exactly does an athlete owe us? What Kim thinks he owes himself is far more important.