July 16, 2018: Michael Kim obliterated TPC Deere Run, shooting a final-round 66 to win the John Deere Classic by eight shots over Francesco Molinari (64), Joel Dahmen (65), Sam Ryder (66) and Bronson Burgoon (69), and breaking the tournament record at 27 under par. But the first time Max Homa saw his new, younger teammate at Cal, there was no shock and awe.
Confusion was more like it. This was the recruit everyone said was so good?
“There was a little bit of trash talk,” Homa said, recalling a practice round involving himself, Kim and another teammate, Michael Weaver, at the Western Amateur in Chicago.
The ribbing revolved around Kim’s lack of distance; specifically, Weaver wondered aloud, how was Kim going to compete despite being two to three clubs shorter than his teammates?
“Michael just looked Weaver in the eye and said, ‘I’m going to hit my 5-iron inside your 8-iron,’” Homa said. “That’s when I thought to myself: This kid is gonna be good.”
With the win, Kim moved from 161st to 56th in the FedExCup.
In addition to hoisting his first PGA TOUR trophy, he also secured the lone Open Championship berth on offer at the Deere. He’s headed to Carnoustie, and he’ll be on the Deere charter with, among others, his older brother, Richard, and mom and dad, Yun and Sun, who took the red-eye from San Diego, arrived in Chicago at 4:30 a.m. Sunday, and surprised Michael when they appeared on the video board on 18.
“He had a big smile on his face,” Richard said. “It was good.”
Kim also tied the largest margin of victory on TOUR this season. This, despite not being able to sleep before the final round. He looked at the clock in his room, tried to quiet his heartbeat, watched Wimbledon.
“I ran through a million different scenarios of how this day was going to pan out,” he said.
Starting the day with a five-shot lead over Burgoon, Kim, a lesser-known member of golf’s vaunted high school Class of 2011, merely birdied the first three holes to extend his lead even further. After his only bad shot, a bunkered tee ball at the par-3 seventh, he increased his lead from seven to eight when he got up and down for par and Burgoon bogeyed. As the latter said afterward, it was time to start thinking about the race for second place.
Homa, who used to room with Kim when the Golden Bears were on the road, saw in Kim a quiet confidence. It came through whether the younger player was on the course, stitching together his staggeringly consistent 2013 college player of the year season, or off it.
“The first time I met Justin Thomas,” Homa said, “I saw the same thing.”
Kim’s confidence bubbled over after he buried a 21-foot birdie at the par-3 16th hole at TPC Deere Run. He was 27 under and eight ahead of his nearest pursuer, and he cupped his hand to his ear, exhorting the gallery of polite Midwesterners to let him hear it.
“I don’t know what that was,” he said later, laughing.
That confidence, though, had been tested. For one thing, Kim’s fellow Class of 2011 members, guys like Thomas, Jordan Spieth, Daniel Berger and Xander Schauffele, were crushing it as professionals. These were guys Kim had held his own against as an amateur.
“You can’t help but feel you’re getting left behind,” he said.
What’s more, Kim rolled into the Quad Cities on the heels of three straight missed cuts and at 161st in the FedExCup. Even to those who knew him, his play was something of an enigma. Zach Johnson, a mentor to Kim, with whom he shares a management agency and a trainer, said the Korean’s enviable talent and inconsistent results seemed to be at odds.
“He’s very, very, very good,” Johnson said.
He wasn’t the only one who was perplexed.
“Michael really struggled this past year,” said Andrew Gundersen, Kim’s caddie for the last four-plus years. “Mainly off the tee. He just needed a different set of eyes, a new coach who was going to show him something he wasn’t seeing.”
It was not an easy decision. Kim had been with his old coach, James Oh, for eight years, and when asked about the coaching switch after his epic win, Kim’s eyes welled up with tears. He explained it was a hard thing to talk about, and that a lot of work had gone into his performance at TPC Deere Run, and Oh was as vital a cog as anyone else on his team.
John Tillery, Director of Instruction at Georgia’s Cuscowilla Golf Club, was the new set of eyes. He came on board to Team Kim not even a month ago, and the transformation didn’t take long.
“I wasn’t real familiar with his game or anything,” Tillery said, “but what was related to me was that the driver was killing him. He mostly had a big right miss. He had some inefficiencies there, but we’ve started to address those and he’s obviously gained some confidence from seeing the ball go where he’s looking. He’s got the pedigree.
“We’re just starting,” Tillery added. “He’s got a lot more gas than he showed even this week.”