TOLEDO, Ohio – Even when things started to look really good for the previously overlooked, 43rd-ranked Michigan Wolverines Thursday afternoon at the NCAA Championship, things actually didn’t look so good.
It was pure ugliness, actually – in the form of a plugged lie in the right greenside bunker on Inverness’ sneaky 18th, the same one from which Bob Tway holed out to win the 1986 PGA Championship.
Earlier that morning, at some point after Michigan’s 4:50 a.m. wake-up call, sophomore Lion Kim (pictured) walloped a drive down the 18th fairway, leaving him 50 yards from the green; he made an easy par, part of a rain-delayed, second-round 3-under 68.
Later that afternoon, Kim, who was playing in the Wolverines’ top slot, lost his drive on 18 in the right rough. At that point, Kim couldn’t see the scoreboard sitting behind the green. He knew his team was inside the top 8, in position to advance to Friday morning’s first round of match play, but also figured there wasn’t much room to maneuver.
Kim stood over his approach in the long and sticky Ohio rough. He caught the ball fat and watched as it flopped hard and plugged into the right bunker.
Kim would later call it “funny.” Yep, funny.
Had the 35 or so Michigan fans sitting on the side hill at 18 been able to see inside that bunker, they wouldn’t have laughed. They had already watched Kim’s teammates make four consecutive pars on 18, from senior Bill Rankin’s up-and-down from the left bunker to sophomore Alexander Sitompul’s 20-footer for birdie that scraped the right edge.
One more was all they wanted, all they needed.
“It’s funny,” Kim explained, “because at (the NCAA Southwest Regional) I had like three plugged lies and ended up making double- and triple-bogeys.”
Fortunately for Michigan, Kim’s father, Yong, was serious when he told his son after the regional that he needed to practice plugged lies. “My dad said, ‘Hey, you need to get a point where you at least get it on the green,’ ” Kim said.
He listened. Kim loosened up, and just tried “to be more free with it.” He gained some confidence, yet went 53 holes this week without getting a chance to see if he’d really gotten over the hump.
So there he stood Thursday afternoon in a wet bunker, looking over a large hump to the 18th green, his team just a bogey or better from becoming the Cinderella story of the top 8, and perhaps the year.
“As soon as I saw the plugged lie, it clicked, this is what I had been working on,” said Kim.
He set his feet in the bunker, freed his wrists, and sailed his ball 7 feet past the cup. He rolled in the putt for par and a third-round 74, almost nonchalantly.
Afterwards, Kim said something much funnier than his plugged lie – that he once made a tougher putt to win a match at the 2007 AJGA Canon Cup, an exhibition for highly-ranked junior golfers. Of course, that 20-footer for birdie was exceptionally meaningless in comparison to Thursday’s 7-footer for par, which when it dropped may have officially signaled a resurgence in Michigan golf.
The Wolverines finished stroke play alone in sixth place, one shot better than second-ranked Georgia and Texas A&M. They play USC in Friday’s first round of match play.
“We’re just proud to be part of this first match-play event,” said coach Andrew Sapp, who has slowly but surely over the last few years guided the Wolverines back into the spotlight, making the NCAA finals this season for the first time in 12 years. Last year, the Wolverines advanced to their first regional since 2000.
“There is some tradition with Michigan golf, but it’s back in the ‘30s – they probably played match play back then,” said Sapp. “Now that we have it again, hopefully we can bring that new tradition to Michigan, so we’re excited.”
Only two weeks ago at the NCAA Southwest Regional, Michigan shot 1 under over its final nine holes at the University of Texas GC to finish in the fifth and final advancing spot to this week’s finale.
“Coming down that back side, we were playing the harder nine, we knew we had to play really well, we shot 1 under as a team and at that point we really knew we could execute under pressure when we have to,” said Rankin. “When we came in four years ago we weren’t even sniffing competing at the national level or competing at regionals and now we have a legitimate chance.”
Two years ago, Kim turned a lot of heads when he announced his decision to go to Michigan, a place that got much more snow than attention for its golf team. (Sitompul’s commitment caused similar reactions.)
“I didn’t want to go to these powerhouses like Florida, Clemson, schools that are known for golf,” he said.
“I wanted to be part of that process where I can look back and say ‘Hey, look, I helped the team really turn around.’ ”