Why this high-ranked golfer named himself after Thomas the Tank Engine

Tom Kim hits drive at 2022 Open Championship

Joohyung "Tom" Kim is No. 39 in the world.

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I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.

His full name is Joohyung Kim, but people call him Tom. You may not know that name yet; he just cracked the top 50 in the world ranking for the first time on Sunday night. But at age 20 — and World No. 39 — he’s likely the youngest, best golfer you don’t know much about.

Let’s start with the name, then. Tom Kim was standing by the Old Course‘s 18th tee on Tuesday afternoon, waiting for the green to clear. That’s a frequent activity around here; the combo of photos at the Swilcan Bridge plus the fact that it’s a drivable par-4 means pros have to allocate a solid half-hour for the final hole of the day. With nobody else to talk to but a curious reporter, Kim told me about his name. Yes, it’s true, he said. He is, in fact, named after Thomas the Tank Engine. Though he wanted to clarify one point:

“I gave myself the name,” he said. “I named myself Thomas.”

Kim was born in 2002 (yes, 2002) in Seoul, South Korea. His father, Chang-Ik, had been a professional golfer and is now a teaching pro. The family moved around when he was young; their residences included China, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. He loved golf. And Thomas. By age 11, enough people had taken to shortening his name that he just went by “Tom.” And he still is.

Like his namesake, Kim has never lacked for self-belief. His actions back it up: the South Korean golfer turned pro at age 15, when he played on the Philippine Golf Tour. Now, just four-plus years later, he’s risen through the ranks to No. 39 in the world and is a trendy sleeper at this week’s Open Championship.

Kim has six professional wins across the Asian Tour and various developmental tours, but by world ranking points he’s actually coming off the most valuable result of his career: Solo third at last week’s Genesis Scottish Open. That was pretty good considering he’d never played any links golf. This week, he said, the linksiness has been turned up to 11.

“It’s different. It’s very, very different. Even though last week [at the Renaissance Club] was kinda linksy, it’s still very, very different,” he said. Different how? “Just the firmness of the fairways — last week when you were off the fairway you could still get that solid hit, spin the ball a little bit. This week? No way.”

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Kim has big-time dreams. He wants to get to World No. 1 — the top of the mountain — and on Tuesday saw what that requires when he played a practice round with Scottie Scheffler.

“I’ve talked with Scottie multiple times, and he’s one of the nicest guys,” Kim said. “Always gives you the time of day even though he’s World No. 1. And when you see that up close, you see what you’d have to do to get to that point, how much better you’d have to get. He’s achieved what very few others have.”

Kim is playing in his fourth major championship, though his first Open. He made his first major cut last month at the U.S. Open, where he finished 23rd. His plan for success? It’s simple, he says.

“It’s a major championship. Stick to the game plan, stay disciplined from tee to green, one thing at a time.”

Thomas the Tank Engine would be proud.

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