2023 PGA: The prodigy’s journey: Tom Kim’s worldwide, rocket ride to stardom
For the first two rounds of the 2022 Saudi International, Dustin Johnson was grouped with an unexpected headliner: a 19-year-old South Korean named Joo-hyung Kim.
The legend of Young Tom was already growing on the Asian Tour, and in the opening round, in his initial encounter with the former world No. 1, the kid cheerily dropped a 65 on DJ. But what was most impressive that day wasn’t Kim’s tidy score, nor was it his tender age. It was his poise. His polish. His trained sense of the moment.
Seeing the teen dream up close, Johnson’s coach, Claude Harmon III, tapped out a text to Trevor Immelman, the International team captain for the upcoming Presidents Cup.
“Have you heard of this kid Tom Kim? He is seriously good,” Harmon wrote. “You need to check him out for the Presidents Cup.”
Immelman filed away the recommendation and dutifully kept tabs on him, unaware, like everyone else, that Kim wouldn’t just play his way onto the team – he’d soon become the biggest freakin’ star on property.
“The kid just has something. You can see and feel it,” Harmon says now. “He wasn’t intimidated in the least playing with DJ. I liked his game but was more impressed with how easy he interacted with a big player he obviously didn’t know. How comfortable he was, which is rare for someone that young.”
Explaining how Tom Kim got so good, so fast – how he became so comfortable, so quickly – can be traced to a unique upbringing that bypassed the modern routing through the U.S. college system.
By now, his early stages have been well-documented: How he got his nickname because of his childhood fascination with Thomas the Tank Engine. How he learned the game from his father, Changik Lee, a former mini-tour pro turned teaching professional. How he was born in South Korea but moved often – to China, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand – to learn English, adapt to different cultures and, yes, go all-in on golf.
Storming through the amateur ranks in southeast Asia, Kim weighed his next steps at a time when his peers were just beginning their freshman year of high school. The PGA Tour’s minimum age limit is 18, adopted after other star-seeking adolescents flamed out, but there were lighter restrictions back home. While others advised Kim to remain amateur, play college golf in the States for a couple of seasons and then turn pro – to follow the traditional pathway – that never really appealed to him.
“I thought if I had a backup plan, I wouldn’t be fully into my golf,” Kim says. “I wanted to concentrate everything on golf and put my time into it. Just looking at my target, looking forward and not having any distractions was a big thing for me.”
So he turned pro in 2018, at 15, biding his time until he reached the mandatory minimum age (16) to compete at Asian Tour Q-School. A year later he mopped up on the developmental circuit, got promoted to the Asian Tour where he became the second-youngest winner in tour history, and then kept rolling through the COVID era with wins in Indonesia, Singapore and India, and against players who, in some cases, were twice his age.
“I was always into, OK, what’s next?” he says. “I’ve never stayed in the same place. I’ve always looked forward.”
Still, that was a fraught period in Kim’s life. His success was born out of necessity; his parents had sacrificed their financial futures to put him in that position. Now, in the formative years of his development, it was his turn to support them.
“It was just the weight on my shoulders, knowing that this is my job, that this was my only option,” he says. “Obviously, it was a dream, but just realizing I had to make it work. I’ve got to have a future in this. I’ve gotta accomplish this. We’re gonna leave everything in the past and just keep moving forward.
“I wouldn’t change it for the world, but sometimes it did get a little stressful, especially back in Asia when the PGA Tour feels so away, like you only see it on TV. You see these guys hitting these amazing shots and then wondering, ‘Man, would I really be able to do it?’”
At an Asian Tour stop in late 2019, Kim met fellow South Korean Sungjae Im, who had just completed his rookie season on the PGA Tour. Though only a few years older, Im served as the blueprint: He turned pro at 17, believing, like Kim, that a few additional years of professional seasoning would outweigh the risk of getting overwhelmed or overexposed too early. Within a few years Im was the Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year and a rising star on the big circuit. That week, Kim befriended his countryman, peppered him with questions about his chosen path – and then set about emulating him.
“I achieved success by starting early; I think turning pro early is better than later,” Im says. “It was my childhood dream to play with famous players I’ve watched on TV and making to the PGA Tour gave me confidence. I grew up fast. It’s the same with Joo-hyung – he gained confidence and adapted fast by turning pro early.”
When Kim landed in that featured group with Johnson at the 2022 Saudi event, he wasn’t some hotshot newcomer who was eager to see how he stacked up. He’d been a pro for four years, already establishing himself as a dominant force in the minors, the reigning Korean and Asian Tour Player of the Year who simply needed an entry point to the next level.
“It’s a testament to his life in his early years, how quickly he matured,” Immelman says. “It wasn’t like he was coming straight from high school and bursting onto the scene and never had attention before. Wherever he played, whatever tour he was on, he was a phenom. He had to deal with those pressures and expectations, and so he was ready for it when he got onto the biggest stage.”
Kim’s timing was impeccable. His Order of Merit title automatically earned him an exemption into the 2022 U.S. Open (where he finished T-23) as well as the Scottish Open, in one of the spots allocated for the top Korean players. He made a late charge for the Scottish title but finished third, all but locking up special temporary membership on the PGA Tour. “I felt like, man, my dreams have finally come true,” he says. “That was a big thing for me. It saved a lot of time in my life.” Kim’s status solidified a month later, when he closed with 61 at the Wyndham Championship to become the second-youngest Tour winner in the modern era, and the first to be born after the year 2000.
For the first time in, well, forever, Kim felt like he was home. He set up a U.S. base in Dallas, centrally located for the Tour schedule and to fly nonstop back to Korea. He began practicing out of Dallas National and Trinity Forest, home to Jordan Spieth, Will Zalatoris and a handful of Koreans. And he linked up with Spieth’s longtime coach, Cameron McCormick, to fine-tune his repeatable, efficient swing.
One of the final pieces for Kim was hiring a more experienced caddie, and well-known looper Joe Skovron became available last summer after parting ways with Rickie Fowler. For Skovron, the partnership with Kim brought back some familiar emotions. Both Skovron and Fowler were rookies when they splashed on Tour together in 2010, learning courses in real time while also dealing with the instant fame and stardom that accompanied the 20-year-old sensation. The fan attention, the Tour requests, the sponsor days – Skovron had a front-row seat to all of it. Combined with the big-game success that Fowler experienced early, Skovron possessed a unique skill set that complemented Kim’s precocity.
“Getting to see everything that Rick went through, being a superstar, that’s not something that every caddie gets to be a part of,” Skovron says. “The guys that he was friends with, the guys he was around – it wasn’t just how Rick did things, it was, ‘Hey, this is how the big-time guys do it’ and you can take pieces from all of them. It just adds to my experience, and it gives a little bit more validity to what I’m saying.”
The similarities between Fowler and Kim are obvious: “They’re both really special 20-year-olds,” Skovron says. But they also have wildly different personality types, different strengths, different approaches to their games. Fowler has more flair, more artistry, a broader appeal. He’s amiable with a SoCal chill, his easy disposition leading to criticism that he prioritizes aspects other than his golf.
That’s unlikely to ever be the case with Kim, a technician who plays with a smoldering intensity.
“It’s his discipline, his work ethic,” Skovron says. “He has very good self-awareness, and he’s not scared of failure. He’s not out there making excuses, and he takes it on the chin. You can be very honest with him: ‘Hey, we need to get better at this.’ And he doesn’t take that personal, he just goes and gets better. That’s a quality you see in a lot of greats across sports, and he has those intangibles.”
Initially, Kim and Skovron agreed on a four-event trial run, beginning of all places at the Presidents Cup, where each swing and every decision is magnified. All Kim did there was win both of his electric matches on Saturday, the latter in dramatic fashion. With both squads convening in the 18th fairway to watch the taut conclusion, Kim rose to the moment and roped a 2-iron into the home hole that set up a walk-off win against the Americans’ powerhouse team of Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.
“I was right behind him watching that shot,” Spieth says, “and it’s the kind of stuff that you see and you’re like, ‘Man, that guy is a killer.’”
The youngest team member (by four years!) had injected some much-needed life into a depleted International squad that came into the week as a historic underdog. Sure, it was important for Kim to prove his bona fides against the world’s best. But his breakout performance at Quail Hollow also had broader implications. His playful hijinks – the ripped pants and black shoes, the bug-eyed glasses and giddy interviews – made him a favorite inside the team room and outside the ropes, his magnetic personality putting him in stark contrast with many of his contemporaries who treat the game as a joyless pursuit. Seemingly overnight, Kim became one of the Tour’s most prized assets and a marketer’s dream.
“I think people appreciate the rawness of him, how he makes them feel,” Skovron says. “He’s excited about golf, and sometimes you forget about that out here. He wants to be great, and he’s coming at you with a smile on his face.”
Adds Immelman: “He has it all. He has unbelievable dedication and discipline. He’s interested in learning. He’s one of the most accurate players on Tour. I just don’t see anything missing from him, and when you add to that his personality and the ability he has to make people feel comfortable around him and be himself in the most pressure-packed situations – the more you get to know him, the more you fall in love with this guy.”
A month later, Kim’s star turn was complete when he outdueled Cantlay again and went bogey-free to win in Vegas. Even for a player accustomed to rewriting history, this was a hair-raising accomplishment: Kim was the first player since Tiger Woods to win twice on Tour before the age of 21.
“Every year comes with different stressors,” Kim says, “and so for me, now, it’s all about, OK, how can I get better? How can I not be happy with where I’m at? I just want to keep chasing my dreams and setting new goals.”
So far, at least, his encore hasn’t been quite as memorable. Despite seeing many of the Tour courses for the first time, he’s actually improved his ball-striking year-over-year but has been limited by a cold putter. While Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler have traded titles throughout the spring, widening the gap at the top, Kim enters this week’s PGA Championship with nine-consecutive starts without a top-10 and is losing ground in the world ranking. For the time being, his linear trajectory has plateaued.
Kim’s rare dry spell offers an opportunity to pause the relentless hype machine – and to remind that prodigious talent needs protecting.
Immelman believes Kim, who turns 21 next month, must avoid ravaging his young body with an overcrowded schedule. (Some context: Kim and Scheffler turned pro the same year, in 2018, but Scheffler, 26, is six years older.) “I know you’re excited, I know you love the way you’re playing,” Immelman says, “but try and pace yourself a little bit. Let’s see if we can keep you out here 15 to 20 years.”
Now with access to Kim’s inner sanctum, Skovron wants his boss to keep his head down and his circle tight. “It’s about the golf, about what you want to accomplish,” he says. “It’s about whatever goals you have with your team and everyone around you. As long as you keep it about that, the easier it becomes.”
A former wunderkind himself, Spieth hopes Kim will maintain his authenticity and youthful exuberance amid the professional grind. “Continue to be a kid,” he says. “Don’t ever look at it as a job. It can get that way pretty quickly, and you want to look at it as a game – as something you love to do – and continue to smile as much as he does.”
Others expressed concern that Kim will eventually focus less on what he has (precision) and more on what he does not (length). Countless players have been derailed chasing distance; there’s at least some worry he’ll get impatient while surrendering so much off the tee to the other top players.
“He has everything that he needs to have,” Immelman says.
A revealing moment came last fall at the CJ Cup, where Kim crashed the end of Rory McIlroy’s press conference and grabbed the microphone. The Tour’s social-media army hustled into position to document their interaction. On the eve of their first official round together, Kim could have asked McIlroy something silly and lighthearted, and the media would have gleefully turned the spontaneous moment into a hundred blogs, tweets and TikToks.
Instead, Kim asked this: “What’s it like having so much success as a young player, and after many years on Tour, how do you manage all that?”
It was earnest. Intentional. Genuinely curious.
No, seriously, Rory: How?
How did you do it?
“I didn’t have as much success as you’re having at such a young age,” McIlroy said with a smile. But then he answered the question, speaking directly to Kim.
The key for him, McIlroy said, was proper time management. He counted the number of sponsors that already appeared on Kim’s hat and pullover: one … two … three, four, five.
“You’re going to be pulled in so many different directions,” McIlroy said. “So, it’s just trying to manage your time to realize what got you to this position: Why are you a two-time PGA Tour winner? Why are you such a great player? And it’s the time you put into it, it’s the practice. It’s not losing sight of that.”
That message resonated so deeply with Kim that he repeats some variation of it any time he’s asked how he’s handling the rush of stardom in the modern age. It spoke to him in a way he hadn’t yet internalized. It underpinned Young Tom’s very essence: how his poise was derived from his preparation, his energy from his varied life experience.
It explained how he plowed through the mini-tours, one after another, until there was nothing left to accomplish.
It explained how he mingled so easily with superstars like DJ and Spieth and McIlroy.
And it explained how he could say, with a straight face, “I feel like I haven’t had much success yet” – even as the game’s preeminent prodigy.
“I keep reminding myself of how I came up to where I am today,” he says, “and remember how hard it was to get here and what we’ve been through. It’s very deep inside of me where it’s hard to forget. As long as I can remember, I hope I don’t forget it.”