The joke at Cherry Hills a few weeks ago went something like this: So I went to the U.S. Women’s Open, and the Girls’ Junior broke out.
It’s fitting then, that the parallels in Idaho last week were downright eerie: Open runner-up Morgan Pressel suffered her second heart-breaking loss by virtue of a holed-out shot from just off the green. And another little-known Korean named Kim rocked an unsuspecting field.
In-Kyung Kim, a spunky South Korean with an engaging smile, warmed over galleries in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, where temperatures routinely surpassed 100 degrees. Playing in her first U.S. Golf Association event and only her second match-play tournament, Kim sneaked through the upper bracket as a relative unknown before routing fellow 17-year-old In-Bee Park, 5 and 4, in the 18-hole final July 23 of the 57th U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship.
In fact, one of the few players familiar with Kim was Park, who had met the unassuming player in Korea when the two were just starting out as 10-year-olds. It didn’t take long for Park to become reacquainted with Kim’s skill.
Kim, who enrolled at the International Junior Golf Academy on Hilton Head Island, S.C., five months ago, pounced on Park early with a 3-up advantage through four holes at BanBury Golf Club and never relented. By the par-3 14th, Kim commanded a 4-up lead when Park’s tee shot plopped into the water.
Kim, who was safely on the green, saw her IJGA chaperone, Kim Campbell, walking alongside the ropes. The admissions counselor told Kim she’d learned the final round was 18 holes rather than 36, the norm in most USGA events.
“Are you serious?” asked Kim, with big eyes and a wide smile.
Park, who won the Girls’ Junior in 2002 and was runner-up in ’03, hit her third shot through the green and conceded the match after Kim lagged her putt to tap-in range.
“I think 36 holes,” said Kim of her back-nine mindset. “Four-up is nothing, I think.”
Unfortunately for Park, she knew all too well that time was running out. Her downfall began on the first hole when she juiced her approach over the green and failed to get up-and-down. Kim tapped in for a routine par and immediately went 1 up. Kim went 2 up with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 second hole. She gave Park few openings from there, missing only one fairway and hitting 11 of 14 greens.
“I know there are 155 players who cried after their last round. I was just one of them,” said Park, who held her younger sister’s hand all the way back to the clubhouse following her loss. “I just cried late.”
Pressel, another junior heavyweight looking to go out with a bang, did more than shed a few tears.
Twenty-five days after Birdie Kim holed out a bunker shot on the 72nd hole of the Open to break Pressel’s heart, Juliana Murcia Ortiz, another tournament longshot, chipped in from 40 feet off the green on the 19th hole to shatter it once again.
The third-round loss came after Pressel dunked her second shot in the water on the par-5 18th to squander a 1-up lead. Ortiz birdied three consecutive holes to unseat Pressel, and the result wasn’t pretty.
After a quick embrace with Ortiz, Pressel turned toward the clubhouse and muttered a few choice words before kicking her grandfather’s scooter.
“It’s not OK,” Pressel shouted as she covered her face with her hat. When the fairway tantrum ended, a red-faced Pressel retreated to the locker room before facing the media.
“This hurts worse,” said the teary-eyed teen of the two improbable losses. “I hit the worst shot of my life on 18.”
Kim also found water on the 18th Thursday but scrambled for par to force Ya-Ni Tseng into extra holes. A pair of pars proved enough to rattle the 2004 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links champion and end what would be Kim’s toughest match of the tournament on the 20th hole.
She went on to defeat Stephanie Connelly, an incoming freshman at Ohio State, 3 and 2, before meeting Ortiz in the semifinals, where she advanced with a 2-and-1 victory. Kim’s victory over Park made her the fifth consecutive foreign-born player to win the event.
“This girl is the machine of machines,” said Gary Gilchrist, director of golf at the IJGA, who along with Hugh Royer, instructs Kim. “What makes her the great player she’s going to be is that she does not doubt her ability one bit.”
Actually, Kim’s perfectionist attitude is something Gilchrist has tried to tone down since she arrived on Hilton Head.
Kim took up the game at age 10 after three years of begging her father for clubs. She was chosen for Korea’s Junior National Team in 2003 and ’04 but tired of the unnerving pressure.
Although she couldn’t speak a word of English, Kim convinced her father she’d have more fun competing in the United States. Gilchrist has worked on shortening her swing and creating more of a pendulum motion in her putting stroke. Oh, and he’s gotten her to smile more often on the course.
A more relaxed Kim not only can beat every player – male or female – from any set of tees at the academy, but she’s now 4-for-4 in tournament play in the States after victories at two International Junior Golf Tour events as well as the AJGA Hargray Classic and Girls’ Junior. Her stroke average in the three medal events: 69.25.
With the help of her host parents, rapper 50 Cent and American reality television, Kim’s language barrier is beginning to crumble. Which means she’s even more comfortable on U.S. courses.
The last event on Kim’s summer tour before she returns to Korea for her senior year of high school is the U.S. Women’s Amateur. By this time next year Kim expects to be playing professionally.
“It’s going to be my championship,” said Kim matter-of-factly of the upcoming Amateur.
Confidence translates universally.