By DAN MIROCHA
Kimberly Kim does things her own way. She moves at her own pace and lives life according to her own rules.
So it’s not surprising that as her most important year of golf approaches, there’s not much that can bounce the 16-year-old off course. Playing with her dogs is just more fun than beating balls at the driving range.
“I should be working harder,” Kim said. “But I don’t see the point of being all serious and stressing over it and making it a bad day. It just takes the fun out of it. Some people like to be serious. I just can’t imagine that.”
Kim is the top-ranked girl in the country and arguably the best female golfer under 18 on the planet. She won the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2006 as a 14-year-old to become the youngest winner in the 111-year history of the event. Last year she tied a USGA women’s scoring record at the U.S. Girls’ Junior with a first-round 62 and won her first AJGA invitational by eight shots. She’s played in two U.S. Women’s Opens and next month will play in her second Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Kim’s game already has pro potential. She’s the clear favorite to claim AJGA player of the year honors, and speculation was she would follow the path of every winner since 2002 in forgoing college. However, Kim says pro plans are now on the back burner after a recent discussion with her parents.
“We were planning that I was going to turn pro this year, but we talked about it again and for sure, I think I’m going to college,” Kim said. “If I didn’t go to college, I don’t think I’d really do well on tour for like, a couple years. I can’t see that lifestyle of tournament after tournament and traveling. That’s tough. So, I think I’m going to go to college first.”
Kim said she’d like to stay near her new home and is considering Arizona State and Arizona, similar to a pair of former AJGA Players of the Year. As juniors, Julieta Granada and Esther Choe signed with Arizona, but backed out to turn pro.
And that’s why it’s not easy to write off an upcoming pro career for the breezy Kim just yet.
Said Stephanie Kono, “With Kimberly you never know.”
Kim will begin her AJGA season March 20 when she defends her title at the ReBath Heather Farr Classic.
“I don’t really see myself as No. 1 because I’m No. 1,” said Kim, who didn’t finish worse than seventh in an AJGA event last year. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Start asking around, however, and things become crystal clear.
“She amazes me every time she hits the golf ball,” said 2007 AJGA player of the year Vicky Hurst. “She has that attitude where if she has that winning putt, she’s not going to kill herself if she doesn’t make it. I think that’s why she doesn’t just win tournaments, she dominates tournaments.”
Kim and Hurst were paired together in the final round at last year’s Thunderbird International Junior. But with Kim on her way to a tournament-record 10-under 206 total, golf was about the last thing on their minds. Hurst, an admittedly intense player, called the experience the most fun round she ever played. The reason? Kim’s humor.
“With her, we don’t talk about anything related to golf,” Hurst said. “She has a million funny stories.”
Kono agrees. She beat Kim in a 23-hole match in the quarterfinals of last year’s U.S. Girls’ Junior. Walking alongside Kim made the five-hour match anything but agonizing.
“She plays golf the way she lives life, the way she talks, everything,” Kono said. “She’s very carefree.”
Yet for someone so easy-going and talented as Kim, there have been plenty of onlookers who wonder if she’s almost too casual on the course. Kim says she sees the looks and hears the chatter: Is she really trying? Why doesn’t she look more into it? Does she even want to be golfing?
“I hear that a lot,” Kim said. “Sometimes they can say weird things, so I try not to listen.”
“I’ve partnered with her and I can tell that she’s into it,” said Kono, who has teamed with Kim in the Canon Cup and Junior Solheim Cup. “Some people might look at her attitude in a negative way, but she’s still young and right now it’s helping her.”
Kim moved to Queen Creek, Ariz., more than a year ago from her home in Pahoa, Hawaii, in order to make it easier to travel to events. She’s taking her high school classes online and recently switched coaches to Jason Carbone, director of instruction at Jim McLean Golf Schools at Wigwam Resort. Her old coach was too technical, Kim said.
“She’s so talented and it all comes from her feel,” Hurst said. “To be able to just look at the hole, look at the ball and hit it, and it goes where you want it. That’s amazing. Not too many professionals can do it.”
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Dan Mirocha is a Golfweek assistant editor. To reach him e-mail [email protected]