March 29, 2011
By Amy Whitesall
In 1990, when all his colleagues were taking jobs in big Korean cities, Yong Kim took his wife and infant son and moved to Saudi Arabia to pursue a business opportunity. It was a risky career move, but Kim knew what he wanted, and he relished the chance to succeed or fail on his own terms.
Two decades later that same independent spirit drives his son, University of Michigan golfer Jun Min "Lion" Kim. A senior who's helped the Wolverines reach the NCAA championship semifinals in 2009, he's on pace to set a school record with his 71.21 scoring average. Kim, who will go down as one of the finest golfers in Michigan history, will be the first to play on golf's biggest stage while still competing for the Wolverines. Last summer, Kim won the U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship and earned an invitation to play in the Masters Tournament April 4-10 in Augusta, Ga. He's one of just a handful of amateurs -- and just three college students -- playing in golf's premier event this year.
"It's special to play in the Masters, but for me it's extra special to play in the Masters while I'm still in college and to get to share that with my teammates and coaches, and to represent the University of Michigan," said Kim, who had a special pair of maize and blue golf shoes made especially for the event and looks forward to getting his Michigan golf bag some national TV time.
Though Lion is by all accounts the consummate team player, he's also his father's son -- eager to meet the challenge and succeed or fail on his own terms.
"What really appeals to me most is golf is an individual sport. If you play badly, there's no one to blame but yourself," Lion said. "You have coaches, but they're not coaching you when you're competing. At the end of the day you're on your own and everything relies on you."
The Kim family spent nine years in Saudi Arabia -- the most vivid memory Lion has of his childhood home is that it was hot. He played basketball, tennis, soccer; he also swam -- the pool was a refuge from the Arabian heat. He loved to compete, but no sport really captured his interest until a year or two after the family had moved to the United States. That's when he followed his father to the driving range near their home in New Jersey.
Lion was 11. He picked up a 7-iron, took a swing and ... duffed it. Couldn't get the ball up in the air. Couldn't get it to go even kind of straight.
"It actually took me three or four more trips to make me feel like this is fun," Kim said. "After a few pointers from my dad I started seeing it get up in the air, and then I started wanting to whack golf balls as far as I could."
But his learning curve was steep, and the next summer, Kim's parents let him attend a golf camp in Orlando, Fla. He played his high school golf at Lake Mary Prep near Orlando, where he became the second-ranked high school player in the country.
At 22, he is all work ethic. He comes early, stays late, slips in some putting practice if he has an hour between classes, practices on his off days. In February, Kim was one of 26 players named to the Ben Hogan Award watch list. The most prestigious award in men's college golf, the Hogan Award goes to the top collegiate golfer in the country each year.
"We had high expectations of him from the get-go, and he answered that very well," said Michigan men's golf coach Andrew Sapp. "He played well as a freshman, was an All-American as a sophomore and All-Big Ten as a junior. He's progressed because he's an extremely hard worker. I can't think of too many that I've coached in 17 years that work harder. His dedication is second to none."
Lion's mother, Hyun Kim, is a pianist who perhaps appreciates more than most the value of practice and honing one's skills. It's her gentle pressure that reminds her son to keep striving.
"The thing I really appreciate about my mom is she's really tough," Lion said. "When I have successes, she says, 'Great job,' but if I do well but don't win she'll say, 'Now you know what to work on.' She pushes me because she knows my potential, and that really helps me."
But the advice he always carries with him comes from his dad, who is both Lion's role model and his biggest fan.
"My dad keeps it simple," Lion said. "He says, 'Lion, I believe in you. You should believe in yourself.' I think it's one of best things that a father can say to a son."
The U.S. Amateur Public Links was pivotal for Lion, and not just because it earned him a ticket to the Masters.
Going into the tournament, he actually thought he'd be playing out the final year of his golf career. It wasn't that he was playing badly, per se, but Lion felt he'd been working so hard for so long, and his improvement didn't seem to follow the same trajectory. His dream of playing on the PGA Tour felt out of reach. The week before the tournament he had a long heart-to-heart talk with his dad about hanging up the clubs after college.
"I trust in your abilities," Jong Kim said. "But if you don't ... if a player doesn't trust in himself, that's the end of the game."
So Lion went into the Public Links championship with no expectations, no pressure, and he persevered through a grueling week to make it to the 36-hole championship. He won the final match, 6-and-5, and because rain delays had stretched the final day into night, he won it in the dark.
And now Kim looks at the calendar and his next tournament is The Masters.
"I think that will stick with me the rest of my life," he said "I was so close (to walking away) and after I won that I gained so much confidence in myself. I realized this is what I want to do, and all the hard work is going to pay off."
Kim has played the Augusta National course half a dozen times since qualifying for the Masters. He knows the course layout, knows where to play it safe, and knows that the famously treacherous greens will be even faster during Masters week. Still, the visits gave him a chance to scout local caddies, gain a level of comfort and gleefully discover that all the food and drinks in the clubhouse are free.
"We've spent dozens of practice rounds with Lion in college, and one of the things we help our players figure out is what to look for and what to do when they're preparing for a tournament," said Sapp, who no longer has to wait for a good reason to attend The Masters. "He's got all the knowledge he needs to get to know the golf course and prepare for it."
Kim's goals for the Masters are fairly straightforward: have fun; try to make the cut; try to finish as the low amateur. For now, that's enough. But his ultimate goal is to make this, his first Masters, not his only one.
"I judge success by whether or not I'm progressing and getting better," he said. "A lot of people want to judge by tournaments you've won and All-America honors. Sure those things are nice, but I'm looking at my career 10-15 years from now. I know where I want to be. Am I improving in my short game, my mental game, physically getting stronger? If I do those things correctly, I'll get there."
Follow Lion's progress at The Masters on MGoBlue.com. He will participate in practice rounds on Monday, April 4 and Tuesday, April 5, as well as a par 3 contest and practice round on Wednesday, April 6. The tournament begins Thursday, April 7 and concludes on Sunday, April 10.