Tom Kim arrived a year ago. Then everything changed
GULLANE, Scotland — It was exactly a year ago that Tom Kim arrived in earnest.
Yes, it was here, at the Genesis Scottish Open, that a 20-year-old Kim began his ascent to stardom. He finished solo third in the event, his best-ever on the PGA Tour, the first lightning strike in a six-month storm that saw him launch from relative anonymity into bonafide golf stardom.
“This is where it all started,” he said Wednesday, sounding like a man who’d lived many lives in the 12 months since his last appearance at this event.
In many ways, that’s the exact truth. Tom Kim has lived many lives in the last 12 months. And that growth hasn’t always been easy.
In the simplest terms, Kim has gone from a golf nobody to a somebody — the sort of player who earns prime pairings and primetime television minutes when he plays in events. But the real measure of his growth is more complicated than that. He hasn’t just earned relevance, he’s earned fame, and fame is a very strange thing to come to a delightfully cocky twentysomething.
Case in point: the Tom Kim of the 2022 Scottish Open still went by his given name, Joohyung; the Tom Kim of the 2023 Scottish Open is three months removed from a GQ photoshoot titled “Golf Could Use a New Superstar, Tom Kim Wants the Job.”
“I think a lot of things have been thrown at me really quickly,” he told GOLF Friday at the Renaissance Club. “It’s been an adjustment to that, obviously. From, you know, no one really knows who I am — early tee time, late tee time, just flying under the radar. Then suddenly I had a great fall, and you get a lot of things thrown at you really quickly.”
It was, to be fair, a great fall for Kim. After earning special temporary membership onto the PGA Tour, he closed the season by nabbing his first victory at the Wyndham Championship, locking up long-term Tour status. Using the victory as his ammunition, he lobbied his way onto a LIV-ravaged International Presidents Cup team, then provided the defining performance of tournament week for either team at Quail Hollow — an effort that included both furious fist-pumps and, at one point, a furious search for a new pair of pants.
Kim fully won over International team captain Trevor Immelman at Quail Hollow, who called Kim “relentless” in his pursuit of a spot on the team roster and shared that he believed Kim had the potential to become a “global superstar.”
“He’s a tremendous gift to our sport,” Immelman said at the time. “He’s just wired different.”
Kim proved his captain right when he returned to competitive golf after the Cup and won his first start at the Shriners. He followed it up by recording five top-25 finishes in six starts to open the year, climbing into the top 15 in the world well before his 21st birthday.
But it wasn’t just the golf that earned him superstar status, it was his personality. Everything he did seemed to turn into viral gold. In the aftermath of split-pantsgate, the overwhelming majority of his International Team teammates named him the team’s biggest eater. He spent Christmas babysitting for the Spieths. He fell into a creek in the middle of play at the PGA Championship. Kim was the natural kind of star — funny, self-effacing, passionate. The golf world swooned.
“I think after the Presidents Cup there were definitely a lot more people recognizing me,” he said. “And now when I’m back at home in Dallas or go out to dinner with my friend or something, you have people kind of coming up to you and asking for a picture.”
Listening to him speak, it is clear that it is still strange for Kim to get recognized publicly. He wasn’t comfortable with the suggestion of becoming a household name the first time I asked him about it at the start of the Presidents Cup, and he certainly isn’t now that he may actually be one.
“I knew that obviously, if you play well, a lot of things come along with it,” he said. “So it was a thought, but I never really thought about it as a real thing where it’s actually going to happen.”
This is a great, if not unique, irony of Tom Kim: fame has come so naturally to him, but being famous has not.
“It’s nice — it’s cool to experience that,” he said. “But, you know, I’m just trying to play golf.”
His golf reveals that fame has come anyway. He travels with an agent and handler who remain close any time he finds himself outside the ropes. He carries a litany of new sponsor obligations, both on his bag and, most notably, his chest — the product of a Nike endorsement deal. Upon the completion of his round on Friday, he conducted an autograph session with a bundle of children, many of whom seemed to know his name.
But it is ultimately the golf that matters. That has come slower to Kim in these last six months than in those blazing first six. It takes time, even for those in the spotlight, and sometimes especially for those in the spotlight.
“The amount of consistency and patience you need to be able to play well out here for a very long time is very hard,” Kim said. “It’s hard not to think about how hard it was for Tiger to be able to play that well for that long. It’s only been eight months, and I’m just still trying to figure it out.”
At the Scottish Open, he seems closer than ever to an answer. He finished Friday’s second round at nine under and firmly in the tournament mix, sporting a glorious chance to improve upon last year’s jump-start finish.
He will enter the weekend at the Renaissance Club with an opportunity to make a memory.
Fortunately, he won’t have to worry about making a name.