Struggling on LIV, overcoming driver yips, Sihwan Kim makes 2023 PGA cut

Struggling on LIV, overcoming driver yips, Sihwan Kim makes 2023 PGA cut
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PITTSFORD, N.Y. – For a player in Sihwan Kim’s current state, the prospect of facing Oak Hill – with its narrow, bouncy fairways lined with dense rough and enormous trees – should have been utterly terrifying.

Through the first four months of the year, Kim has been – by far – the worst player on the LIV Golf circuit. He has shot a combined 68 over par in six tournaments. He has beaten a total of six players, oftentimes finishing last in the field by several shots.

And yet he has secured a weekend tee time here at the PGA Championship – the strongest and deepest major in golf – after overcoming a recent bout with the driver yips. It’s his first career made cut in a major.

“I kind of found it three weeks ago and have just been going deeper with it,” he said in an interview Friday. “Then when you start hitting it better and your mental game sorts itself and then you get a lot more positive.”

Full-field scores from the PGA Championship

Kim is a former U.S. Junior Amateur champion who had a standout career at Stanford and has been trying to find his footing overseas. Last year was something of a breakout for him: He won twice on the Asian Tour, most importantly the International Series Thailand event that helped pave his path to the more lucrative LIV series. His 2022 Asian Tour Order of Merit title also kept him near the top of the International Federation Ranking List, gaining him entry into the field here at the PGA.

Even with a few blowup events last fall – including a wild 87-63 swing at LIV Boston – Kim closed out the year with a couple of encouraging performances, describing himself as “never being more confident off the tee.” But the toll of a 29-event global schedule began to take its toll. With his body starting to shut down, his ball-striking suffered and swing compensations followed. He began missing both ways.

“Then you go to a course where it’s very tight and you start missing it,” he said, “and then your confidence goes.”

Within a few events, what started as a technical swing issue became mental.

“You’re standing there, and let’s say there’s out of bounds right and a hazard left, and at one point I’m trying to put it in the hazard so you can go up and drop rather than being back at the tee,” he said. “That’s pretty much how bad it got and how my mindset was at one point.”

Players endure miserable slumps all the time, but they can usually suffer in anonymity. What was unique about Kim’s struggles on LIV was twofold: With the no-cut, limited-field format he was still earning a boatload of money (more than $742,500 already this year – the least of any player who has played every tournament); and he was also hurting his teammates, after he had signed on with Kevin Na’s squad. The week that Na’s Iron Heads placed third in Tucson, Kim had shot 19 over par for the week individually.

“It happens to the best of us,” he said.

At one point this spring, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson came up to Kim and offered advice: to just let it go, to swing freely, to not care so much about the results. But in some ways, Kim said, the team component has actually backfired – it’s caused him to put more pressure on himself, because he feels as though he’s letting everyone else down. Na has told him to “stop thinking about the team and just do what you need to do.”

“But that’s hard to do in golf, when one bad shot can pretty much ruin your day,” Kim continued. “So that’s been a struggle. But I’m playing here and I’m playing on a great tour, so I can’t complain.”

Every LIV player has a different contract, and barring a miraculous turnaround, Kim’s days on the rival circuit are likely numbered. He’s one of two full-time and healthy LIV players (former U.S. Amateur champion James Piot being the other) who has yet to earn a single point individually this year. Keeping his status for 2024 is “not on my mind,” Kim said.

What matters instead is turning around a sputtering game that has been the source of much internet trolling.

“It’s been a rough three months,” he said. 

Kim’s early returns at Oak Hill haven’t been eye-popping – he ranks outside the top 120 in strokes gained: off the tee through two rounds – but then again he made the cut against the strongest major field of the year.

That’s hard-earned progress.

“I’ve been hitting it with a lot more freedom,” he said. “It all starts with a bad swing and creeps into my mental side. So I just want to get better with that.”

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