October 21, 2012 marked the final day in the professional golf career of Mi Hyun Kim. Kim had been struggling with injuries the past several years, and a particularly bad one in her ankle had sidelined her the entire season to date. She finally decided that she could no longer compete at the highest level anymore, and several weeks ago announced that the LPGA KEB-Hana Bank Championship, thanks to a generous sponsor’s invitation, would be the final event of her career.
As you can imagine, Kim did not play particularly well. She was rusty from her long layoff, and shot a weak 4 over par 76 in round one. In front of her home fans (the event took place in her hometown of Inchon), she rallied in round 2, shooting the last under par round of her career, a 2 under 70. But her injuries really started hampering her in round three, and she struggled to a 78. It is a testament to her grittiness that she even finished the round at all, given her condition. After the final putt dropped, she was given a bouquet of flowers by LPGA commissioner Mike Whan, who lauded the diminutive star thusly: “I think I can say here today that nobody in the game of women’s professional golf has done more; you, Se Ri (Pak), Grace (Park), you’ve changed the game forever, and I think if all of the young rookies can live up to that, we’re going to have a lot of great women’s golf for the next few decades.”
Mi Hyun Kim has always seemed like the most unlikely of sports stars. Five foot zero in spiked shoes, she was as different as can be from the other two original ‘Seoul Sisters’, Pak and Park. Whereas those two were among the longest and most athletic of all the Korean golfers to ever play the game, Kim, whose nickname was Peanut, simply didn’t have the size to overpower the ball. She relied on an uncanny facility with fairway metals, one of the most brilliant short games in LPGA history, and the competitive heart of a lion.
Then there was her swing. Fans of the modern Korean golfers have gotten used to seeing one textbook swing after another from these stars. Only occasionally do you see a top Korean who has an unorthodox motion (Inbee Park comes to mind as an example). But Mi Hyun Kim: now she had a wildly different swing. Back in the day, nobody in golf had more of an over the top move than Kim. Her club went so far back that it pointed straight down at the ground! Yet somehow, she was able to repeat that motion over and over, becoming one of the most accurate golfers of her era. Eventually she had to shorten the motion to preserve her health, but her unusual action still led to the injuries that ended her career.
But that was all in the future back when Kim was 22 and one of the top golfers in Korea. The year was 1999. Se Ri Pak had just turned the LPGA on its ear the previous year with her epic, game changing rookie season. Her entire country was in a frenzy, and young girls everywhere were eager to follow in her footsteps. Meanwhile, Grace Park was tearing up the States in the amateur ranks, having dominated the US Women’s Open runner-up Jenny Chuasiriporn in the US Women’s Amateur the previous year. She was about to embark on her own pro career that summer.
Mi Hyun Kim, meanwhile, had inherited the mantle as the top Korean LPGA golfer when Se Ri left for the US. Well and good; but could she compete on the LPGA? Unlike Pak, she was short off the tee, which was much more of a liability on the LPGA than in Korea. Kimmie joined the LPGA that season, and found herself locked into a duel for Rookie of the Year with Akiko Fukushima, exactly the kind of long bombing golfer that should have eaten Kimmie for lunch and had room for dessert. Things were far from easy that first season; she did not have a big sponsorship deal like Pak had, and traveled the country in a van with her parents to save money. The results were not great to start, but she slowly acclimated, and eventually won twice to pass Fukushima and win the Rookie of the Year award, the second straight Korean to do that and a sign of things to come for the Seoul Sisters and women’s golf.
Kim tends to get short shrift in the story of most important golfers in Korean history. The dominating Hall of Famer Pak rightly gets top billing, while the glamorous Grace Park is given a lot of attention as well. Kim’s self effacing nature and lack of English skills, especially at first, also contributed to her being overlooked. But in many ways, Kim was just as significant as Pak. Pak started the ball rolling, but it was not such a big surprise for a superstar like her to do well in the States. Kim, as mentioned before, seemed overmatched. When she showed that a Korean woman golfer could make a great living over here without a ton of power, but with a bag full of fairway metals and an unwillingness to accept defeat, it meant a lot to the other Korean girls who could never come close physically to what Pak was able to do. It said to them, you can make it over here, too.
Over the next eight years, Kim forged an amazing career on the LPGA tour. She won 8 times in total, finishing fourth on the tour money list two times (2002 and 2007), and collecting a staggering number of top tens along the way (she had 15 in 2004 alone). In the following paragraphs, I’ll reflect on some of the highlights of her amazing career.
Always the Bridesmaid, Never the Bride (until she WAS the bride!)
Mi Hyun was given the nickname Kimmie in this country (probably before there were so many different Kims on the tour!). Until Jiyai Shin won the Kingsmill event last month, she was the second winningest Korean golfer in tour history. But she never did win a Major over here. Her father famously told her that she could not get married until she collected one, but eventually relented and allowed her to get married as her career wound down (to be fair, he was probably joking. I think!).
The closest she ever came to grabbing one of the Majors came in 2001 at the British Women’s Open, the first time that event was given Major status. It was played at Sunningdale that year. Mi Hyun Kim worked her way towards the top of the leaderboard on Saturday, and looked well poised to make a run at the title. But the weather got worse and worse, and the players in the final few groups were hit the hardest, including Kimmie. She made several mistakes and fell back to the field.
On Sunday, Se Ri Pak started the day nowhere near the lead. But she played brilliantly, making a bunch of birdies, including two on the final two holes, to shoot a 66 and post a leading score. Kimmie spent the next hour and change trying to catch Pak, but couldn’t make the birdies she needed to do so. She wound up in solo second place, two shots behind Se Ri. It was the first time Koreans finished 1-2 at a Major (but not the last – in fact, the last four Korean wins at Majors have all featured 1-2 Korean finishes!). One can only wonder what could have been had the weather not been so cruel to Kim on Saturday. But that she still managed to carve out the second place finish demonstrates a ferocity to win belying her tiny frame.
Never Count Kimmie Out (Ginn)
In 2006, Kimmie was in the middle of a long winless drought on the LPGA. She had not claimed a trophy since the 2002 season. She had managed quite a few top tens during that span, but the wins were eluding her. Finally, she found herself in perfect position to grab the victory. The tournament was the Ginn Clubs & Resort Open, and entering the final round, Kimmie had fought off rookie Ai Miyazato and secured a three shot lead. But on that final day, it was budding superstar Lorena Ochoa who put the pressure on her. It took Ochoa just seven holes to erase Kim’s five shot lead. Kim retook the lead by two strokes on the back nine, but Ochoa and Karrie Webb kept applying pressure.
Finally, Kim reached the par 5 17th hole. She needed a birdie to make sure the win would be hers. Tiny Mi Hyun Kim stepped up to the tee and smoked a 290 yard drive right down the middle! She then hit a bold second shot over treacherous bunkers, yelling ‘Go! GO!’ as the ball flew. Her ball cleared the sand and landed on the green, and from there she two putted for the birdie that won her the tournament. Who knew that the littlest Seoul Sister had the power to reach the green in two like that? Even she later expressed surprise that she had that in her, but those who had followed her career long enough knew that exceeding expectations was something Mi Hyun Kim did on a regular basis.
The Biggest heart in the game (Greensburg)
At the SemGroup Championship in 2007, Mi Hyun Kim was not expecting to be in contention. The course was one of the longest the LPGA played all year, over 6600 yards, and Kim was going to have to hit a lot of fairway metals to stay in the hunt. But as it turned out, the course also rewarded accurate putting, and by the final round, Kim found herself in a pitched battle with American Hall of Famer Juli Inkster for the title. Inkster played well, making several clutch shots and forcing a playoff. But surprisingly, it was Kim who triumphed in sudden death, ending a long slump for the Korean ladies on the LPGA.
I wrote at the time: “The story of Mi Hyun Kim winning the SemGroup Championship is one of a player facing down the odds and coming out on top. She had to beat many of the top players in the world to claim the title, including newly crowned number one Ochoa. She had to deal with a course that did not play to her strengths, with conditions that made it even tougher for her to come out on top. And she had to beat one of the toughest players in history in a playoff. But she did it all, proving that she has one of the greatest competitive hearts on tour.”
Indeed, it was a memorable tournament, her eighth (and as it turned out, final) win on tour. But it was what happened next that elevated the event and showed that, besides being a fantastic golfer, she also had one of the biggest hearts on tour. SemGroup was contested in Oklahoma. Next door in Kansas, there had recently been a devastating tornado that had pretty much wiped out the city of Greensburg. Kim had never been to that town and knew nobody there, but she was so touched by the situation that she gave $100,000 of her winnings, nearly half of what she earned that week, to the victims of that catastrophe. She told the press that she did it because she wanted to help, and felt that God had given her a gift with this win she hadn’t expected, and she was sure He did it to give her a chance to help others. And so, she did. In some ways, that stunning gesture of charity led to the others by the Sisters that have happened since, such as In Kyung Kim’s donation of her entire winner’s check to charity a few years ago, or Jennifer Song’s pledge to give 30% of her winnings to charity. As with so many other things, however, Mi Hyun Kim was a pioneer.
Here’s a video clip about this gesture: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QcsVfl4wqM4
Addendum: a year later, the President of the United Way of the Plains appeared at the SemGroup with Mi Hyun Kim to personally thank her for her gift and to note that the publicity surrounding her donation had generated an additional $1.2 million in gifts from others who had been inspired by her generosity. The money was used to rebuild 25 homes.
2007 was Kim’s last great year on tour. After that, injuries and personal issues affected her career. Some of the personal issues were happy ones: she met and fell in love with Korean Judo Gold Medalist Won Hee Lee and married him in 2008; none other than Se Ri Pak caught the bouquet at their wedding! The next year, Kim gave birth to her son , taking much of 2009 off to have the baby and take care of him.
2010 was pretty much a lost year, but she had some decent results in 2011 when she was not injured. Alas, injuries finally caught up to her in 2012, and she had not been able to play all season until her final bow at the Hana Bank tournament last week.
Mi Hyun Kim’s professional golf career has ended, but she won’t be far from the game. She has already opened several Mi Hyun Kim Golf Academies in Korea, with the intent of nurturing the young Korean talent into the next generation of stars. Don’t be surprised if we start seeing a whole raft of ‘Mi Hyun’s Kids’ joining the ranks of women (and men!) golf superstars in the near future.