CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Tom Kim has already had his star turn at this Presidents Cup. He’s been endlessly entertaining in the team room. He’s gone full Gladiator mode on the greens. He's literally burst at the seams, twice requiring a new pair of pants because of a wardrobe malfunction.
And now here was another moment, with Kim standing in the 18th fairway, 235 yards away, tied in a fourballs match Saturday against the Americans’ coldblooded team of Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay.
Kim had spotted Cantlay 55 yards off the tee. Lined up behind him were a horde of Team USA carts, the stars all there: Jordan and Justin, Collin and Tony, plus the wives and the support staff and what felt like half of Charlotte all right there with him, but pulling against him.
Kim grabbed 2-iron … and smoked it into the middle of the green, his ball rolling within 10 feet of the flag. Even the pro-U.S. crowd offered muted applause – it was a heckuva shot in any situation, but especially so with the match, and likely the International team's comeback hopes, riding on it.
“To me, that’s impressive stuff,” captain Trevor Immelman said. “No matter who you’re rooting for, that made my heart warm right there.”
Immelman met the 20-year-old for the first time during a practice round two months ago at St. Andrews. They were on the fourth hole at the Old Course, and they exchanged numbers, and ever since then, Immelman said, Kim has been blowing up the skipper’s phone, begging him for a spot on the team. In the end, Kim didn’t need one – he won the Wyndham a few weeks later and automatically qualified – but he made an immediate impression.
“He’s just wired different,” Immelman said.
Caddie Joe Skovron had a similar takeaway. Looking for work after parting with another immensely popular player, Rickie Fowler, Skovron connected with Kim and flew to Dallas late last week for a trial run. They went to work for two days at Trinity Forest and Dallas National, and Skovron was blown away not just by Kim’s monstrous talent but his outsized personality.
“You can tell there’s something about him,” Skovron said. “There’s an ‘it’ factor. You never know until you get in competition, but seeing him that first day, he’s not scared of the moment and he has fun out there. He likes it.”
On a tour overrun with image-conscious and too-serious pros, Kim’s youthful exuberance has been a refreshing change and led to a cult-like following on social media. Three of his International teammates were asked Friday night which player this week has been a revelation in the team room. Even while facing a dire 8-2 deficit, they all lit up and offered the same answer.
“Tom Kim,” they said enthusiastically.
“He’s been such a tremendous gift to our sport,” Immelman said. “He has an ability to be a global superstar, this kid. I know he has the game; we’ve seen he has the game. But what I’ve learned about his personality and his heart and what he stands for this week – man, I am a huge fan.”
After losing his opening match, Kim teamed up with fellow South Korean Si Woo Kim to take down world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler and Sam Burns, the highlight coming on the 11th green, when Tom Kim rolled in a 50-footer for eagle and promptly lost his mind, hollering, manically pumping his fists and leaving both his ball and putter on the green as he stormed to the next tee.
Kicking off the afternoon fourballs, Kim implored the partisan crowd to cheer while he settled over his first tee shot and then giggled when his ball ricocheted off a tree back into the fairway. Wanting to bring “positive vibes,” he unleashed yet another unhinged celebration after dropping a second eagle bomb on 11, but it was the spark his team needed to get back into the match against the American juggernauts. Two holes later, they were tied.
That’s how Kim wound up on that 18th green, 10 feet away from delivering a much-needed point. As he stalked his putt, he let his mind wander to how he would celebrate.
“I was looking over that putt,” he said, “and I wanted it more than anything in the world. I would have done anything for that to go in.”
Rising to the moment, Kim perfectly matched the read and the speed and poured in the birdie, touching off a wild celebration at the front of the green, Kim front and center.
“Man, that shows some guts,” Immelman said, still emotional an hour later. “I’ve been in a few moments like that in my career. There’s some turmoil going on inside in those moments. You’re excited, you’re anxious, you’re nervous, you’ve got some belief in there – like, there’s a lot going on, man.
“And he pulled it off. We were damn proud of him.”
Watching the chaotic scene unfold was a stunned Schauffele and Cantlay, who had mowed down their first two opponents but were upended by the fist-pumping phenom.
“His favorite player is Tiger Woods,” Schauffele said of Kim, “so, you know, I’d say Tiger’s fist pumps were probably a little bit scarier, but he gets fired up. He played incredible golf. He beat us. He hit some incredible shots from all over the property. He just played better.”
And so did the International team on Saturday. Energized by Kim, they halved the opening foursomes and then took three of the four possible points in the afternoon – the first time the visitors outscored the Americans in a two-day session since 1998.
Heading into Sunday singles the deficit was trimmed to 11-7, a four-point margin. That’s a magic number in team golf, given the comebacks and collapses over the past quarter-century.
“The vibe …,” Immelman said, collecting his thoughts for about 15 seconds, “the vibe is hopeful. The vibe is hopeful. Today was a good day for us.”
The mood was decidedly different in the other team room. The Americans were “pissed off,” and they didn’t care to hide it.
“We’re going to try to win 12 points and see what we can do,” Justin Thomas said.
His partner, Jordan Spieth, was similarly pointed. “I thought that was their moment, and they should be excited,” he said. “But I said it in the cart ride on the way back in: I wouldn’t pick any of their players to play against any of our players and take them by any means. You put any of our guys against any one of theirs, I’d still tell you I think our guy is going to win. It’s 1-on-1 tomorrow.”
Added captain Davis Love III: “They’re going to come out mad tomorrow. I hope they’re mad. I’m confident that they will channel that into playing tomorrow.”
In his debut appearance, Kim has become the smiling, screaming face of the resurgent Internationals, and it was easy to imagine the Americans – having watched Kim’s histrionics on Saturday – lining up to face him in singles.
It was suggested that Kim should go up against Thomas – the heartbeats of the opposing squads.
“I’d love that,” Thomas said.
“I think we’d like to see Billy Horschel against Tom Kim,” Spieth interjected. “That would be fun. I think Billy would like that, too.”
But neither will get a crack at the third-youngest Presidents Cupper in history. Kim wasn’t slotted until the 10th match, against affable American Max Homa. With the U.S. team needing only 4 ½ points to secure the cup, it’s possible, if not likely, that his match won’t factor in the final outcome.
That’d be a shame, for Kim hasn’t just craved the spotlight this week – he has thrived in it. Instead he’ll be watching the board closely, hoping on Sunday that another big moment belongs to him.