TIGER WOODS was missing from last week's Wachovia Championship, but by the time the Sunday evening sun began to cast long shadows through the trees and across the swales at Quail Hollow Club, his absence was long forgotten. Anthony Kim was there, and he proved to be a reasonable facsimile. Compliments don't come any more supersized than that. ¬∂ This year's tournament in Charlotte, a favorite PGA Tour stop at which each pro is given a Mercedes for the week and even the caddies are offered valet parking, was encapsulated perfectly on the final hole of last Saturday's third round. Kim, a 22-year-old comer with a huge upside, made the dangerous and intimidating 478-yard finishing hole look puny by pounding a 324-yard drive down the fairway, sticking a pitching wedge shot to six feet and making the putt. The birdie capped a flawless six-under 66, giving Kim a four-shot lead and pretty much guaranteeing his breakthrough victory. The round was extraordinary. Jason Bohn, Kim's playing partner, labeled it "almost Tigeresque."
What followed on Sunday was also straight from the Tiger playbook. Needing only 11 putts, Kim blitzed the field with four birdies on the first nine holes to push his lead to as many as seven shots. Two of the birdies came on par-5s, which the 5'10", 160-pound Kim ate up like corn muffins all week, playing them in 11 under. And even when he did show a flicker of going-for-first-win nerves, at the par-4 9th, where he drove into a fairway bunker and had to lay up (BIG PLAY, page G22), he hit the flagstick on the bounce with his approach and easily saved par. From there Kim sucked any drama from the Wachovia like a vampire after a fast. For the record, he bogeyed two of the last three holes and still beat runner-up Ben Curtis by five strokes.
Kim's victory affirmed that he is, indeed, the Next Big Thing, but let's not confuse that with being the Next Tiger Woods. Until someone wins 13 major championships, that label should be locked away. "Tiger Woods isn't one in a million," says Tour veteran Stewart Cink. "He's one in ever." But there are similarities between Kim and Woods. Both were born and raised in greater Los Angeles, although Kim moved to La Quinta, Calif., near Palm Springs, when he was 16, living mostly by himself (his parents, Paul and Miryoung, stayed in L.A. to run their oriental-herb business) so he'd have easier access to golf. Like Woods, Kim was a prodigy and a four-time American Junior Golf Association All-America. He was also the NCAA freshman of the year for Oklahoma in 2004, played on the winning U.S. side in the '05 Walker Cup and became a three-time All-America before leaving school early (as Tiger did at Stanford) to turn pro. Once on Tour, Kim started strong, coming in second in his first event, the 2006 Texas Valero Open.
There the similarities end. In his rookie year Tiger received enough sponsors' exemptions to earn a Tour card. Kim did not, so in the fall of 2006 he was forced to play in the Tour's qualifying school, at which he won his '07 privileges by coming in 13th. At about the same time, Kim and his father, a golf parent who had pushed too hard, ended their two-year estrangement. "We're good now," Kim says.
When Woods arrived on Tour, he was a 20-year-old with a 35-year-old's sensibilities and was immediately accepted by his peers. When Kim, steamed that he had landed only two sponsors' exemptions in '06, showed up last year, he was a 21-year-old with an attitude, and he rubbed many of his fellow pros the wrong way. At the Colonial he was asked whom would he put on a golfing version of Mount Rushmore. Kim said Woods, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus and—after giving it some thought—Anthony Kim. He also turned off some older pros with the brash assertion that he should've already won a couple of tournaments.
Then there was the matter of his work ethic. While Woods had always risen at dawn for running and lifting, Kim took the opposite path, continuing to live the college life—more parties, less practice. It got to the point that Kim, fatigued from his late nights, quit taking practice swings so he'd have more energy for the real thing.
On the surface, Kim's rookie season appeared to be a success—he finished 60th on the money list with $1.5 million on the strength of four top 10s—but it felt like a letdown. Things began to change in December, when Kim found himself paired with 51-year-old Mark O'Meara at the Shark Shootout in Naples, Fla.
O'Meara, Woods's longtime friend and confidant, has the wisdom of years as well as an eye for talent. "I see a lot of talented young players," O'Meara says, "but nobody really jumped out at me until I played with Anthony. I was blown away. At 22, Anthony's swing is better than Tiger's was at 22. I told Anthony, 'You have as much talent [as], or more than, any other player I've seen besides Tiger.'"
Kim concluded that talent is a terrible thing to waste and changed his work habits. "I was an immature kid last year, and I feel as if I've grown up quite a bit," says Kim, who admits that last year's struggles might've been exactly what he needed. "If I had won, my practicing would have gone down to even less, and there wasn't much more to go down."
A scare at home also served as a wake-up call. In April, Kim's girlfriend, Lisa Pruett, stepped on a piece of broken glass and cut a muscle in her foot, losing a dangerous amount of blood by the time she arrived at the emergency room. "That was probably the scariest thing I've ever gone through," Kim says. "I think that changed the way I look at everything. It could have happened to me and ended my career. It could have happened to my mom. It could have happened to anybody. I realized that there are a lot more important things in my life than golf."
That wasn't true for a few hours on Sunday afternoon when Kim was busy crushing the star-studded field at Quail Hollow. He was given a warm reception by the packed house as he neared the 18th green carrying a five-shot cushion. "That walk up 18 was the best feeling in my entire life," Kim says. "I'll never forget it. I had chills going up and down my spine."
Kim will probably also remember a small, yet telling, gesture by Rocco Mediate earlier in the day. Kim was on the putting green a few minutes before his final-round tee time when Mediate, a veteran of 22 years on Tour, walked past having just finished his round. He rolled a ball in Kim's direction, hitting Eric Larson, Kim's caddie, in the foot. Larson turned and saw Mediate grinning, pointing at Kim and offering a thumbs-up. Kim looked up and smiled. He had finally arrived.
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"I see a lot of talented young players," says O'Meara, "but nobody jumped out at me until I played with Anthony. I WAS BLOWN AWAY."
Photograph by Fred Vuich
BIG FOOTPRINTS Kim will have to go some to match Woods, who already had seven wins when he was Kim's age.
VICTORY LANE Seven up at the turn, a triumphant Kim sucked the drama out of the final round.