On-the-Job-Training Shows Kim He Can Compete at Next Level

April 22, 2011

By Amy Whitesall

A couple weeks removed from his appearance at the 2011 Masters, U-M senior Lion Kim reflected on his unforgettable experience and what he learned from it all.

Brian Mogg's heart pounded as Group 25 approached the first tee at Augusta National Golf Club. The trio included his friend, PGA Tour stalwart Davis Love III, along with two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal. But it was the third guy -- the young amateur in the maize and blue wingtip shoes -- for whom Mogg's nerves were tied in knots.

Olazabal hit his opening drive of the 2011 Masters tournament in front of a bunker on the right. Love's shot landed in the sand.

The amateur, University of Michigan senior Lion Kim, drove his ball straight up the middle of the fairway, attacking the hole just the way he and Mogg had discussed. Some 168 yards from the pin, he pulled out his seven iron -- his favorite club, the same loft his dad first handed him on a driving range in New Jersey the day this whole golf journey started -- and hit his second shot to within six or seven feet of the hole. Then he sank the birdie putt. So much for jitters.

"I absolutely felt like I belonged," said Kim, who earned an invitation to the 2011 Masters after winning the 2010 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship last summer. "I think I did a decent job of making sure I stayed in the moment, of being fully present and doing what I needed to do to play good golf. I was there to have fun and enjoy it, but I wanted to compete. I wanted to do what it takes to be fully prepared."

Kim has dreamed of playing on the PGA Tour almost as long as he's played golf. The same could probably be said of any college player. But few get the chance to test drive their dreams at the Masters, and fewer still do it with as much poise and aplomb as Kim did.

Though he missed the cut, so did a lot of pros, including his playing partners. Kim shot 76 the first day and 72 the second to finish four over par with 148, a score that, many years, would have been enough to get him to the weekend. The cut was 145 strokes, one of the lowest in the tournament's history.

It was, nonetheless, an unforgettable week of on-the-job training for the 21-year-old. Kim calls Augusta National one of the most special places on earth. He was just barely half joking when he told his parents he would be back.

"He was always really composed," said University of Michigan head coach Andrew Sapp. "The strange thing about it was he really didn't have any shots where you hit a bad one and say, 'That's probably just jitters.' He had some bad shots, but everyone does in the course of a round. It was pretty remarkable how composed he was, not only playing in his first Masters, but his first PGA Tour event. He was just very well prepared, and I thought his confidence came from his preparation."

Masters co-founder Bobby Jones was an amateur, and the tournament extends every hospitality to the amateurs who play in it. It's tradition, for example, to pair them with past tournament champions and high-profile PGA pros. That's how Kim wound up playing with Olazabal and Love -- the 2012 European and American Ryder Cup captains, respectively.

Mogg, Kim's swing coach since high school, introduced him to Love and Olazabal after the pairings were announced. Kim walked up to Love on the practice green, took off his hat and extended a hand.

"Mr. Love, I look forward to playing with you," he said.

He did the same with Olazabal.

"I couldn't have done that at 21," Mogg said. "He handled himself with absolute poise and class."

Mogg also arranged for Kim, who was born in South Korea, to play a practice round with one of his golf idols, Korean pro K.J. Choi. One round eventually became three in the days leading up to the tournament.

"He was such a gentleman about saying, 'Let's do it again tomorrow,'" said Kim, who was one of the fans outside the ropes 10 years earlier, when Choi stood for a picture with him at the 2002 Bay Hill Invitational. "I just kept tagging along. I wasn't going to say no.

"It was awesome. It took me 10 years to play alongside a player of his caliber. It meant a lot, and I learned so much. Obviously, I have tons of respect for his game. To play alongside him I felt like my hard work had finally paid off."

Kim watched the way Choi and the other pros acknowledged the crowd and gave autographs whenever they could, noticed how generous they were with their time, how they interacted with fans and media. He absorbed the deliberate way they prepared for their rounds, and the way they played the game itself -- pacing off yardage without the aid of yardage meters, attentive to their pre-shot routines, patiently considering every shot.

Lion Kim with K.J. ChoiLion Kim with fans

"In college, you're in a hurry to get your yardage and pick out your club," he said. "These guys really take their time. They really dissect and find out which is the best club to give themselves a good opportunity."

He also picked the brains of young pros like Kevin Na, about the road ahead, which for Kim will include the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament -- better known as Q-School -- next fall.

The top 25 players in the final round of Q-School receive PGA Tour cards (Note: The PGA Tour is considering awarding only Nationwide Tour cards to the top finishers at Q-School starting this fall); others who make that third round earn spots on a professional mini tour. Kim knows it can take years to get to the PGA Tour. And there's no shortcut to experience.

But if the week at Augusta taught him anything, it's that he's in this game for the long haul.

"I gained so much confidence in my game after that week," he said. "That was the most important thing. (Missing the cut) was not what I wanted but under the circumstances of the weather here and still being in school -- school is my top priority; my mind is not always fully in golf -- I really believe once I graduate and can give my full, undivided attention to golf, really I feel like I can play with those guys on a consistent basis."