Inside the moment that swung the Presidents Cup
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — What does the moment of validation look like for Trevor Immelman? It looks an awful lot like prayer.
Immelman was crouched in that way — palms pressed together, head bowed, eyes lowered — for only a minute on the 18th green at Quail Hollow on Saturday. But it was the minute that changed everything for the Internationals at this Presidents Cup.
Immelman was at the forefront of the International side, all 30 or so of them, when they arrived at the 18th green with their Presidents Cup hopes hanging in the balance. Their trust — their faith — resided in the day’s biggest match, which pitted their 20-year-old gunslinger against what very well may be the most dominant match play pairing in the world.
Just weeks after Immelman lobbed a Hail Mary on his yearslong effort to captain a Presidents Cup team to a kid he’d known for two months, The Kid, Tom Kim, found the ball falling into his hands in the endzone. But first he had to make the putt, so Trevor Immelman prayed.
“I just want him to make it,” Immelman begged. “I want him to make it.”
Some prayers take years to answer. Some take only a few seconds.
“He pulled it off. We were damn proud of him.”
The Internationals were done — finished — when Saturday’s morning foursomes ended shortly past noon Eastern. They trailed 10-4 to the Americans heading into the fourth and final team-play session. Sure, the afternoon fourball session was an opportunity to even things some, but with the U.S. riding the juggernaut foursome of Patrick Cantlay/Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas/Jordan Spieth to start, it seemed far more likely that the Americans would pull away for good. The Internationals were simply too young, too inexperienced, and making too few putts. The Americans were too talented, too relentless and too opportunistic.
Then the afternoon fourball session happened, and now the ledger reads 11-7.
So how did we wind up here, with the Americans on the defensive, the Internationals with the momentum, and the U.S. lead down to just four points? For that, we’d need to cede the floor to the unquestioned superstar of Presidents Cup week, Tom Kim.
Kim’s boundless energy has quickly turned him into the kind of match play hero (or heel) character upon which careers are made. The 20-year-old has punched above his weight with astonishing frequency at Quail Hollow, showcasing a rare blend of shotmaking ability and spine-tingling skill with his putter. But it’s his uppercut that has earned the attention of the golf world, the one that has been unleashed every time Kim’s team has holed a putt over these past few days.
On Saturday afternoon, the fist pumps came often for Tom, who teamed with countryman Si Woo Kim in the heavyweight bout of the tournament. The South Koreans were heavy underdogs going into their meeting with Schauffele and Cantlay, who had already bested Kim in Friday afternoon’s fourball session and entered the match with an average margin of victory of 4-up over their last four matches.
The two Americans played brilliantly all afternoon long, including a stunning birdie putt from Schauffele on the 15th that briefly shifted the match in their favor. But then the four players walked down the 18th fairway tied, and Kim needed a moment of brilliance.
“He’s probably 60 yards behind his opponents. He’s over the ball. I look back, I see the who’s who of American golf in carts behind him,” Immelman said. “I see Thomas, I see Spieth, I see Finau, I see Homa, I see Morikawa, all of them sitting on carts 15 yards from him.”
Kim pulled 2-iron and smoked it, watching as his 240-yard approach came to rest 10 feet from the flagstick. Cantlay and Schauffele came after (and from far nearer), neither put their approach within 10 yards. At the green, all three of Kim’s playing partners missed their birdie tries. It was finally Tom Kim’s turn.
In these moments — the ones that decide matches and tournaments — the whole of golf can be reduced to only two types: those who want it, and those who need it.
Tom Kim needed it.
“Oh, 100 percent,” he said. “I was already thinking in the back of my mind, if this goes in, what am I going to do? How am I going to celebrate? That’s if it goes in, right? I did stay in the moment, but that was definitely on my mind. And, yeah, I mean, I wanted it more than anything in the world.”
His putt hit the middle of the middle. Birdie. Game over.
Kim properly exploded, sprinting across the green in childish joy. But it was the first man who met him out on the putting surface, Immelman, who felt the purest happiness.
“Ho baby!” He exhaled from just off the green. “How’d you like THAT?!”
If not for a chance encounter at this year’s Open Championship, Tom Kim never would have been here.
Immelman, the International captain, was not looking for fresh blood when Kim approached him on the 4th hole at the Old Course. Immelman had spent the better part of two years building an identity for an International squad, and a few LIV defections weren’t enough to get him to consider a 20-year-old rookie. But Kim was persistent.
“Immediately he made an impression on me, like immediately,” Immelman said. “He’s just wired different. I know how much he wanted to make this team because from that moment that I met him and I gave him my number on that 4th fairway, he was texting me pretty much every day.”
When it came time for Immelman to make his captain’s picks, he agonized over the Kim decision. It was a gamble to add a player of Kim’s inexperience and anonymity to the International roster, and Immelman had invested so much in the process of building the team the right way. Was it worth abandoning all that to add a wild card to the roster? Finally, he relented.
“He was so desperate to be on this team, and I just wanted him to have that moment,” Immelman said.
By the time he reached the 18th fairway on Saturday evening, Immelman knew his youngest competitor’s talent more than matched his mettle. But no one, not even Immelman, could have anticipated he’d respond with that 2-iron.
“For him to give up that 50- or 60-yard advantage and stripe a 2-iron in there and make that putt, man, that shows some guts,” a misty-eyed Immelman said afterward. “I’ve been in a few moments like that in my career. There’s some turmoil going on inside in those moments. You’re excited, you’re anxious, you’re nervous. You got some belief in there. Like there is a lot going on, man.”
For Immelman, it was the moment of the tournament. The Internationals enter Sunday’s singles matches with a fighting chance. And if the response on the green after Kim poured in his birdie putt is any indication, they know it, too. Immelman’s squad trails by four points, the same deficit of two massive comebacks of match play past — Medinah and Brookline.
“It’s a magic number,” American captain Davis Love III admitted.
On Saturday night, there is little question who will be the emotional leader of that charge: the 20-year-old.
“He has an ability to be a global superstar, this kid,” Immelman said. “I know he has the game. We’ve seen he has the game. But what I’ve learned about personality and his heart and what he stands for this week, man, I am a huge fan.”
Tom Kim was still floating when he walked off the green on Saturday evening at the Presidents Cup.
He had just made the putt of his life. His caddie, Joe Skovron, and captain remained dutifully behind him, tamping down the spikemarks he’d left in the green.
Kim walked back toward his team with his shirt still untucked. A celebration would soon follow in the International team room that would be audible from all the way on the other side of the practice range. But before he could get there, he stopped to deliver one last uppercut to the golf world.
“We’re here to fight,” he said. “And we’re here to win.”