Michael Kim is home again at the Farmers Insurance Open — and looking ready to win

SAN DIEGO — Michael Kim has has walked Torrey Pines more times than he can remember. He grew up a short drive from the picturesque grounds and regularly played the course as an amateur. In 2008, two weeks after Tiger Woods drained a 12-foot putt on the South Course’s 18th hole to force a playoff at the U.S. Open, Kim, then a teenager, placed a tee where the cup had been and tried to replicate the roll.

Recalling that moment brings a smile to his face and leaves no doubt that Torrey Pines has a lock on his heart, not only because of those youthful memories but also because it’s where he began his professional career 10 years ago — on the same North Course where he shot a 5-under 67 Wednesday in the first round of the Famers Insurance Open.

So much has happened to him between then and now that it’s understandable how some might dismiss it as fiction. Imagine going from the No. 1-ranked amateur coming out of Cal to losing your PGA Tour card; from climbing to No. 199 in the world rankings after winning the John Deere Classic in 2018 to bottoming out at No. 1,803 at the end of January 2021; from being considered a can’t-miss prospect to having people ask your coach if you’re done.

Kim doesn’t have to imagine it. He has lived it.

“It has been a pretty big rollercoaster ride,” he said Tuesday on the eve of his eighth Farmers appearance. “When you grow up hoping to someday play in the event … you only think about the good things that might happen; you don’t necessarily think about all the bad things that might happen. During those ups and downs, I feel like I’ve grown a lot as a person and as a golfer. Surely much more knowledgeable about my mental game, my full swing and all that. Hopefully, I can use those ups and downs to further my career starting now.”

Wednesday was another step on the long road back for Kim, who entered the top 100 in the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) this week and is No. 76 on DataGolf. He birdied five of the first eight holes on the back nine to end the day tied for ninth. Traditionally a slow starter to open a season, he’s coming off a tie for sixth last week at The American Express — it was his highest finish since a T5 at the Wyndham Championship last August — and a T42 finish two weeks ago at the Sony Open.

Kim was so locked in on the back nine that he came within a couple of feet of acing No. 15, a 202-yard downhill shot just off the Pacific Ocean, then followed that by coming within a few feet of posting eagle on No. 16, spinning an approach backward on the 393-yard uphill par-4. The only blemish on his card was a bogey on 18, where he found the long, thick, wet rough off the tee, came up short on his approach, then failed to get a putt from the fringe to the upper part of the green, which contributed to a difficult par putt being just offline.

That said, Kim had every reason to feel good about his day and his game, which was something he could rarely say a few years ago. He was consistently struggling off the tee, statistically costing himself one stroke per round while the top players were going in the other direction, gaining a stroke per round with their driving accuracy. Consequently, it was as if he was spotting his opponents two shots before his first swing.

He was so out of sorts that, beginning with the last two events of 2018 and continuing through the end of 2020, he missed the cut or withdrew from all but one of the 44 PGA Tour events that had a cut. Kim calls it his low point in golf, and as if that was not enough to deal with, longtime manager and confidant John Mascatello passed away in June 2021.

Eventually, Kim began working with coach Sean Foley. From afar, they could not be more different. Kim is understated, congenial and unfailingly polite. Foley is colorful, charismatic and unfiltered. One is whole milk, the other whiskey with no chaser. And yet the combination works for them.

“When people said to me, ‘Michael Kim has not been playing well for years. Do you think he’s done?’ I’d say, ‘He’s 27 years old, so probably not,’” Foley said. “The second thing is, whatever allowed him to be No. 1 in the world as an amateur, it’s still there. The fattest guy in Lifestyle Fitness still has a six-pack. You just can’t see it, but it’s all there.”

Michael Kim got hot on the back nine during the first round of the Farmers Insurance Open with five birdies. (Ray Acevedo / USA Today Sports)

The challenge was to get Kim to face his fear of the miss. He might send drivers deep and straight, but in the back of his mind, he’d be wondering when the mishit would come. For him, it had become a matter of when, not if. He found himself playing not to lose rather than playing to win, which is where Foley came in.

During a phone conversation, Foley quoted Bob Marley as a means of changing Kim’s outlook. Marley had been shot several times in his Jamaica home two days before he was to give a concert to quell political violence in the country. When asked if the concert should be canceled, which would prevent Marley from speaking truth to power, the reggae star is said to have remarked, “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.”

“I told Michael, we’ve got this (stuff) going really well with the driver, but the last step is that you’ve got to stand there, and if you hit a bad shot it’s got to be because you took it on rather than you being too scared,” Foley said. “So we’re going to die on our feet, we’re not going to play on our knees.”

Kim chuckles when recalling the conversation but turns serious when asked if the words really go through his head when he’s on the course.

“I feel like I’ve had a decent amount of scar tissue from the bad years, and I think the way the brain works, whenever I’m feeling all of that anxiousness, the brain kind of loves to go back and try to do things to protect me by telling to avoid things,” Kim said. “And so a lot of time on the golf course for me is trying to deal with those types of emotions and deal with those nerves and anxiousness. We talk about how it’s totally OK to feel those, but you can’t play afraid. If there’s trouble to the right, I can’t play golf trying not to hit into trouble. I have to try to pursue the shot.”

So, he does reflect in the moment?

“All the time, every time,” he said. “Those nerves and anxiousness and anxiety are with me every round that I play. Not just me but all these guys out here. It’s how you deal with those types of emotions on the golf course. I can make friends with them because it’s very rare that I don’t feel it at all. So it’s trying not to ignore, because ignoring only makes it worse. … The more you try to push away and act like it’s not there, the more the thing grows in your mind. If you’re scared of the monster in your closet, the more you pretend it’s not there, the bigger it gets.”

It’s not common for pro athletes to speak publicly about their emotional vulnerabilities, so it’s striking to see just how willing Kim is to pull back the curtains. Last November, he was eager to appear on the No Laying Up podcast because he was hopeful that struggling golfers might draw something from his journey that could help them get right. He is equally giving with fans, using his X (formerly Twitter) page to offer swing advice.

Kim is the type you pull for simply because he’s such a genuine guy, and who doesn’t love a good redemption story, particularly when it comes at the site where the journey began.

(Top photo of Michael Kim: Orlando Ramirez / Getty Images)

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