Joohyung Kim’s nickname, “Tom,” is a reference to Thomas the Tank Engine, the character from the famous British children’s book who doesn’t possess the strength or pedigree of the mightier locomotives but finds himself overachieving in the railyard.
This, we’re afraid to report, is a wholly inapt and unacceptable metaphor for Tom Kim. Tom Kim is not a scrappy machine grinding his way up a hill; Tom Kim is a bullet train, and if his win at the Wyndham Championship on Sunday is the ascent that brings him to the attention of the American public for the first time, you get the sense that it is not nearly the most impressive peak he’s going to summit in his career. Far from a “little engine that could” character, what we’ve just seen is the coming-out party of a well-oiled iron horse, prepared for a kind of greatness that could come so fast that it makes us dizzy.
- At 20, he’s the second-youngest winner on the PGA Tour since 1932, trailing only Jordan Spieth.
- He’s the first player born in the 2000s to win on tour.
- He’s the first player to make quadruple bogey on the first hole and go on to win the tournament (since 1983, when hole-by-hole stats were first kept), and only the fifth player to ever make a quad and win.
- With a Sunday 61 that included an absurd 27 on the front nine, he posted the fifth-lowest final-round score by a winner since 1983 and became the first pro to pull off the Sunday 61 and win since Rory McIlroy at the 2019 RBC Canadian Open.
- Since he only had special temporary status coming in to Greensboro, he needed to win outright to make the playoffs—no other outcome would get him full status and an entry into next week’s first leg in Memphis—and he did it.
- He accomplished it all while playing his fifth straight week, and in brutally hot, humid weather. (Afterward, Kim joked that while he was thrilled to make the playoffs, he had been excited to spend a week at home and wasn’t over the moon to be heading to a location, Memphis, that might be even hotter than North Carolina.)
It’s an incredible series of facts, but somehow it still pales to how Kim looked on the actual course. The son of a South Korean pro, Kim has lived in five different countries and speaks three languages. Like Spieth and Collin Morikawa, he carries himself with a poise belying his years. His celebration when pouring in his par on the 18th hole, a subtle fist pump, broadcast a story not of a wild upstart victor, but of someone who fully expected to be there.
And, it turns out, he did.
Kim’s temperament reads friendly, and he calls himself a joker among his team, but acknowledged that he’s mature for his 20 years. He’s the kind of person who can talk about his immense work ethic in one breath, then describe his parents’ logistical duties in service of his career as a “pain in the ass” with an easy laugh.
He’s willful, too—he gave himself the nickname “Thomas” as a child because he was a fan of the show, but also because he didn’t accept that his parents had the full authority to name him. (He nearly went with “Buzz Lightyear,” and is grateful today that he decided against it.) Golf is in his blood; his father Chang-ik Kim is a former tour pro who became a instructor, and Kim, whose English is fluent, spent parts of his formative years in places like Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand.
“I didn’t have the most financial comfort when I was younger, so I’m just glad that I can support them now and they can just travel with me,” he said of his parents. “I can’t say exactly one thing that they’ve sacrificed. They’ve sacrificed so much for me. I’m just really glad that I can give this back to them.”
With his 27 on the front nine, in which he made birdie or eagle on all but two holes, he leeched the drama out of the final regular-season event of the 2021-22 PGA Tour season, and turned Saturday’s crowded leaderboard into a Sunday runaway. Yet this performance didn’t come out of nowhere—he’s been on the winning scent all summer, where after dominating the order of merit on the Asian Tour and the Korean Tour since 2021, he turned in a third-place finish at the Scottish Open, and started his American career with a 23rd-place showing at the U.S. Open before notching his first PGA Tour top-10 last week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
It certainly didn’t seem that he’d continue his ridiculous trajectory at the Wyndham. Not at least after he played his first hole. On Thursday, he posted an 8 to get things started without even taking a penalty stroke. It’s a testament to the red-hot state of his game that he’d almost fought back to even at the turn and finished the day with a 67.
A second-round 64 sent him toward the top of the leader board. Then on Sunday afternoon, he made his big move, draining putts of 20 feet, 24 feet, 12 feet, seven feet, and 18 feet in a five-hole stretch from 2 through 6 that he played in six under. Two more birdies to finish the front nine gave him a four-shot lead, and though he cooled off with a bogey on No. 10, he played well enough on the back nine to hold off competitors like Sungjae Im, John Huh and Russell Henley, none of whom ever really got close.
Kim clinched his PGA Tour status for next season with last week’s result—earning enough FedEx Cup points as a “non-member”—and that alleviated the pressure he felt at the Wyndham. Still, the pressure returned on the back nine, and despite the appearance of relative calm, his heart was pounding.
“I didn’t know golf could be this stressful,” he told CBS’ Amanda Renner.
In his post-round press conference, Kim spoke about Michael Jordan and how he felt a certain connection in the air with this week’s tournament in Jordan’s native North Carolina.
“I’ve just been a big fan of people who have accomplished so much in their career. … I don’t know any of them personally, but I’m a huge fan, just that Mamba mentality,” he said. “And I watched The Last Dance probably 10 times just because there’s so many great quotes by him and there’s a reason why he was the best basketball player. Once it was confirmed this week he was from North Carolina and to win somewhere where he’s from, it’s an honor. He’s not going to know it, but like for me, it’s a little special thing in my heart. There’s so many great quotes by him.”
You wonder, though, if Jordan will in fact, know him, and if they have more in common than Kim might think. If nothing else, we know that Jordan is a fan of the team events, and along with earning his status and a spot in the Masters next year, Kim has put himself in a great spot to make the Presidents Cup team; International captain Trevor Immelman has already spoken to him. There’s a chance Kim might cross paths with Jordan in Charlotte.
For Im, who finished tied for second, the day was still a success, and a late surge to reach 15 under saw him rise from 15th to 10th in the FedEx Cup standings, sneaking into the final spot in the Comcast Business Tour Top 10 and earning a $1 million bonus. (Hideki Matsuyama, who opted not to attend the Wyndham, was bumped out by just 35 points.)
Given the Wyndham’s usual spot on the tour calendar as the Last Chance Saloon for pros to earn their spots in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, Sunday came with the attendant Top 125 bubble drama. Kim and Max McGreevy were the two players who started outside the bubble (in Kim’s case, he was technically inside, but needed the outright win to make the playoffs), and Austin Smotherman (who missed the cut in brutal fashion) and Matt Wallace were the two unlucky souls to fall out. Rickie Fowler, who along with Wallace and Smotherman missed the cut on Friday, barely hung on to the 125th spot, and will make the trip to Memphis next week.
The final in-and-out tallies never quite capture the full theater of Wyndham Sunday, and that remained the case this year. Justin Lower seemed to have a two-putt to retain his PGA Tour card on the 18th green, and three-putted in gut-wrenching fashion. Doc Redman needed a great round to break into the top 125, and nearly got it, but in the end his 64 wasn’t good enough.