North Plains, Ore.
In the midst of cornfields and golden fescue under a cloudless Pacific Northwest sky, Kimberly Kim became, like, the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur, like, ever.
The 14-year-old battled back from an early 5-down deficit against the seemingly ancient 26-year-old Katharina Schallenberg at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club Aug. 13 to triumph in dramatic fashion.
But, whatever, she thought the trophy was way cool.
“It was really nice,” said Kim of the ornate Cox Cup. “There was like leaves on it and stuff.”
So she doesn’t speak the Queen’s English. Most 14-year-olds don’t. Words such as “like,” “whatever,” and “stuff” come as naturally for this Hawaiian with a mouth full of braces as text messaging, giggling and routine pars. She uses a permanent marker to write swing notes on her arm. For her match against Schallenberg, she colored in a red blob on her left wrist to get fired up, Tiger-style.
Watching her hit booming drives and delicate chip shots during the 36-hole final, it often was difficult to comprehend that the 5-foot-5 Kim is heading into her sophomore year of high school. It has been quite the coming-out summer for Kim Kim, or Kim-squared as her friends call her. She finished runner-up to Tiffany Joh at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links in June and was the youngest player to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open in July.
Schallenberg, from Germany, made three birdies en route to a 4-up lead after six holes. She was 5-up through 15.
Kim, Golfweek’s 10th-ranked junior, managed to cut Schallenberg’s lead to two heading into lunch by winning the last three holes at the Witch Hollow Course. During the break, Kim’s 20-year-old caddie, Frank Nau, told her to start playing “smashmouth” golf in the afternoon. In other words, go for everything.
The aggressive play paid off as Kim took control of the match for the first time on the 30th hole. She had dunked the ball in the water on the 127-yard par-3 12th hole “three or four times” throughout the week (including Sunday morning), but managed to coax a 9-iron 8 feet from the pin. She then drained the birdie putt to go 1 up.
Still clinging to a one-hole advantage on the 17th tee, Kim drove the ball into a right fairway bunker. With Schallenberg’s approach already sitting 12 feet from the pin, Kim took a deep breath before letting her 7-iron rip from 149 yards. The ball bounced by the flag and rolled 15 feet behind the pin. Both sunk their putts for birdie and headed to the 36th hole. With adrenaline pumping, Kim launched her drive about 280 yards on the closing par 5.
When Schallenberg’s pitch into the green came up short in the fringe, it appeared to be advantage Kim, who was lying pin-high left of the green in a collection area in two.
But the German rolled in her 25-footer for birdie from off the green to put the pressure back on Kim, who had nestled her chip shot 8 feet right of the hole. A nervous Kim backed off the putt several times before converting and etching her name in history.
“I was shaking so much,” said Kim. “I don’t even know where I aimed or anything. . . . It’s like, whatever, just hit the ball.”
It was the first tournament Kim had won since the 2004 AJGA IRI Golf Group Tri-Cities Junior at Sun Willows, Wash. Before Kim, the youngest Amateur champion was Laura Baugh, who won it in 1971 at 16 years, 2 months, 21 days.
Every year USGA officials help the Women’s Amateur champion put together a note card filled with
the names of dignitaries and club employees to thank in her victory speech. Here’s a sample of what Kim added to the list:
“I’d like to thank God, because I prayed on every hole.
“I’d like to thank the 18th hole for letting my ball go in.
“I’d like to thank my caddie, he was cash.
“I’d like to thank my opponent, today you just brought it on.”
It’s a good thing Kim had a cheat sheet. When asked Friday what
she thought of Eileen Vargas, her opponent in the quarterfinal round, Kim said, “Was that the girl I played against?”
Of course the next day Kim admitted she had no idea what kind of stage she was playing on until after she’d made it into the semifinal round. “I didn’t know it was that big of a tournament until last night on The Golf Channel,” said Kim. “It had its own commercial. I went ‘Wow, this is a huge tournament.’ ”
So the fact that Kim threw some U.S. Amateur history at her father in between sessions seems somewhat impressive given her previous
out-to-lunch approach. Kim drew inspiration from Tiger Woods’ 1996 victory at Pumpkin Ridge when he came back from a 5-down deficit against Steve Scott at the halfway mark to win a record third consecutive U.S. Amateur.
Kim, who like the other three semifinalists was playing in her first U.S. Women’s Amateur, couldn’t have been more different than her opponent.
Schallenberg traveled halfway around the world to Pumpkin Ridge, despite an extreme fear of flying. Germany’s No. 1 amateur wanted to test herself against the world’s best, and knew this was the place to do it.
“It’s huge,” said Schallenberg of the event’s popularity back home.
While Schallenberg is a relative unknown in the United States, she’s easily a top-five player in Europe according to Marcus Neumann, coach of the German national team and Schallenberg’s caddie for the week. In April, Schallenberg won the Sherry Cup, a prestigious event that features the top three players from each federation in Europe.
“She got a yellow jacket, very famous in Europe,” said Neumann.
Schallenberg came to the United States in 2000 to play for the University of Oregon but headed home after four months because she couldn’t stand to fly to so many tournaments. She quit golf and went home to start an apprenticeship as a bank clerk, but got bored of telling the same people they had no more money to withdraw. So she enrolled at the University of Paderborn to study international business.
Neumann helped convince Schallenberg to return to the German national team after a four-year break. Of course they had to work on her fear of flying to get her back playing international events. Neumann would like nothing more than to see Schallenberg next try her hand at professional golf, but says it won’t happen before fall 2007.
“Coach is pushing me, ‘Go on the tour, you can do it’ but I’m not sure about it,” said Schallenberg. “It’s nice playing as an amateur because the Federation covers all the costs. There’s no pressure making money to make a living.”
Schallenberg was bidding to become the first mid-amateur to win the U.S. Amateur since 28-year-old Cathy Sherk in 1978. She also was vying to become the first German-born player to hoist a USGA championship trophy.
“I just made a couple of mistakes, maybe,” said Schallenberg, who wiped away tears as Kim hoisted the trophy. “Or the balls didn’t bounce, they could have bounced better, I guess. And we weren’t reading the greens as well as Kimberly and Frank.”
When asked how her match against Kim ranked among her years of competition against Europe’s best, Schallenberg said “On the top.”
She then sat and pondered the question for a few more moments before adding, “Definitely, yes.”
Kim has lived in three states this year: Hawaii, California and Arizona. She and her mother moved in with Glory Yan, a player she met on the AJGA circuit, last spring while they were looking for homes in California. The Kims eventually migrated down to Queen Creek, Ariz., where they’ve been renting a house. Kim’s father, Young Soo, travels with Kim to tournaments but still lives in Hilo, Hawaii, where he runs an orchid farm.
When the Cox Cup arrives in Queen Creek, Kim will put it atop a desk in her bedroom, along with the silver medal she won at the WAPL. She has
no bed per se, only a blowup mattress. All things considered, there are worse ways to decorate a room than with USGA hardware.
And so the Kims keep winning. Two players with the surname Kim have won on the LPGA this season: Joo Mi Kim and Mi Hyun Kim. Nearly one year ago, little-known Birdie Kim stunned the golf world with a miraculous hole-out bunker shot on the 72nd hole to win the U.S. Women’s Open.
Do a search on LPGA.com for “Kim” and eight players come up. Twenty-six Kims are in the Golfweek/Titleist Junior Rankings, with 2005 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion In-Kyung Kim leading the way for much of the season.
A Kim (Song-Hee) is even leading the Futures Tour money list with four victories.
It’s safe to say that Kim Kim won’t be changing her given name to “Birdie,” “Eagle” or “Ace” anytime in the near future. She’s signing her autograph Kim2 and teaching reporters how to form the letter “K” by kicking out a left foot and arm while holding up two fingers for “squared.”
She’s already managed to set herself apart in the ever-growing world of Kims.
“I think it happens to be easier, everybody can remember the names,” said Young Soo Kim.
But Kim isn’t settling for becoming just another Kim. She has her sights set on another three-letter name – Wie. As the crowd gathered around the 30th hole, one patron turned to a friend and asked if Kim was really only 14.
“Why are we talking about Michelle Wie then?” asked the man to no one in particular.
Kim played golf with Wie in Hawaii before the
6-foot-2 superstar outgrew the junior scene. When Kim played a practice round with Wie at the Open in Newport, it was the first time she’d seen her in two years.
Wie won the WAPL in 2003 at age 13, becoming the youngest player to win an adult USGA championship. Prior to the final round at Pumpkin Ridge, Kim marveled at Wie being a millionaire at age 16, but said she’d stick with junior golf, then try college before turning professional.
Twenty-four hours later, when asked for her reaction to becoming the youngest player to win the U.S. Women’s Amateur, Kim didn’t hesitate in drawing a comparison:
“Maybe I can be like Michelle.”
Now that’s cash.