‘I’m a fighter’: Even in defeat, golf’s newest superstar had an epic week

Tom Kim captured hearts and minds at the Presidents Cup.

Tom Kim captured hearts and minds at the Presidents Cup.

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — By Sunday evening, every single living organism at Quail Hollow seemed to agree on one thing: Tom Kim is awesome.

Everyone, that is, except Tom Kim.

“Not gonna lie, it’s a really tough day for me right now,” he said, standing dejected beside the 18th green. He’d just lost 1 down to Max Homa, missing a five-foot birdie putt at the last that would have given him a half-point. That half-point was irrelevant; Team USA had clinched the Presidents Cup a half-hour before. His match only mattered for the final stat sheet. But Kim was down on himself anyway.

“Instead of playing my own game and hitting good shots over and over again, I was trying to figure out how to play the match instead of how to play within myself,” he said. “It was a great learning experience, but hopefully I can make the next team and contribute a little bit more.”

Contribute a little bit more?! Safe to say the 20-year-old has higher expectations for himself than anybody else. Kim didn’t just win two of the International team’s 12.5 points. He provided its heartbeat. He carried the tournament. He screamed and fist-pumped his way into the golf world’s hearts and minds, and then he did it again, and again, and again.

Don’t believe me? Ask his teammates.

“Tom’s like the Energizer Bunny, he just keeps going,” said K.H. Lee after the two teamed up for an alternate-shot victory on Saturday morning. “Although he’s a star already, I think he’s going to be a superstar soon.”

Ask his captain. Trevor Immelman was there for arguably the most memorable moment of the entire week, which came with Kim standing on the 18th fairway, 235 yards from the hole, in a tied match against American superstars Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay. I’ll let him take it from here:

“I thought something that was so cool on the final hole today,” Immelman said after Saturday’s sessions. “He’s about 240 yards out. 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 golf carts behind him.

“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. And this kid pures a 2 iron to 10 feet and makes the putt. To me, that’s impressive stuff. No matter who you’re rooting for, that made my heart warm right there. So extremely proud of him today. He went out. He did his job. He earned two points. And that is fantastic.”

Ask his caddie. You know Joe Skovron from his days on Rickie Fowler’s bag; their partnership lasted from 2009 through this year’s Wyndham Championship. It was fitting that Kim won that same event, earning his way onto the PGA Tour — and this team — in the process.

“I was so impressed,” Skovron said post-round. “He loved it. He loved the big moments and I loved how he responded. That putt on 18, that whole thing, the energy and feeling like we’re back in it, him doing that and finishing off that match against those guys, they’re such good players, that’s the one I’ll remember.”

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Ask the fans.

At first, they didn’t know what to make of him. When Kim was fist-pumping match-extending putts while 5 down, both fans and opponents were slightly taken aback. But that was Kim following his instincts. Being himself. It didn’t take long for Tom Kim Mania to sweep over the grounds. On Sunday, his star fully born, he was peppered with chatter as he walked the fairway.

“Tom! You’re my new favorite golfer!”

“Tom! You’re so cute!” (That one earned a look.)

“Tom! My friend loves you! And I do too!”

“Go Tom go!”

Or, the best one of all, as one winning putt rolled toward the hole:

“Tommmmm mothaf—– Kim!”

Ask Kim himself. Before his Sunday singles match, he walked from the putting green toward the massive arena encircling the first tee. He turned to Skovron. And he grinned.

“You ready for this?”

Tom Kim knows he’s Tom Kim. And he’s embraced it, too. He turned from Skovron, donned his black-and-yellow International team sunglasses and burst through the tunnel like some sort of beloved villain, embraced by the home crowd. Kim waved his arms before he stepped up to his tee shot, encouraging the crowd to get as loud as possible while he pumped one down the fairway. (It eventually found a fairway bunker, but nobody much cared.)

Early on, it felt like Kim’s Sunday would make a nice complement to his Saturday. He built a 3-up lead through nine holes and held it through 11. But Homa birdies at 12 and 14 plus Kim’s bogeys at 13 and 15 flipped the match from 3 up to 1 down. That’s where it finished.

“Unbelievable week, but I just wish I had contributed to the team a little more. I had a great Saturday, it was going to be a great Sunday as well, but it slipped away,” he said.

Tom Kim has a sparkling future.

He already has a higher world ranking than you’d think; his Wyndham win shot him up to No. 19 and he currently sits at No. 22. Get ready to see him everywhere. Get ready to hear him, too.

Everyone who plays these events raves about their ability to test your game. Under pressure, what breaks down?

“The positives I would take from this week are probably the shots that I hit under pressure and the putts that I hit,” he said. “The other side is, I got a little ahead of myself. I started to focus on the match instead of just thinking about my game.”

Skovron figures to be a part of the picture. The two vibed all week. Skovron joined him before every tee shot, they talked through every decision and congregated afterward to celebrate or commiserate. And while Skovron played their future cool — “You’d have to ask him Tom about that,” he said — Kim was more effusive.

“It was the first week and we had some success,” he said. “But even in a week, he’s become a really good friend of mine. So I think we’ll be working together for a while.”

Many people got to know this version of Kim this week. The Energizer Bunny version. The manic spark plug of the International side. They liked what they saw. Just one question, then: What does Kim want people to know about him?

He paused.

“That I’m a fighter,” he said. “I don’t give up. Hopefully I’ll be able to contribute to this team and I’ll get a rematch, maybe with Max. And I’ll learn from this and I’ll be back.”

Kim won’t be back. He’ll never leave. Buckle up.

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier

Golf.com Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/GOLF.com. The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.