PHOENIX — Meg Mallon texted Judy Rankin when I.K. Kim had a clean-up putt to win the 2012 Kraft Nabisco Championship.
“I love this kid,” Mallon told Rankin, who was working in the Golf Channel booth that week. “I love her swing. I love everything about her. I’m so happy for her that she won.”
And then, Kim did the unthinkable. She missed the 14-inch putt.
“Oh, my God. I did the cardinal sin,” said Mallon, who quickly fired off a text to Kim, telling her that she accepted full responsibility for sending the golf gods in the wrong direction.
Reacting to the violent lip-out, Kim put her hand to her mouth in disbelief, then covered her ears as she walked off the green.
“A lot of players would’ve thrown their clubs in the trunk and been out of there,” said Stacy Lewis, who became the No. 1-ranked women’s player after victory March 17 in the RR Donnelley LPGA Founders Cup. “She was probably the only person who could’ve handled it.”
One year later, Kim – who lost to Beatriz Recari in a playoff at last week’s Kia Classic after three-putting the 18th green twice – faces more questions. In fact, she’ll likely get more attention next week at Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage, Calif., than last year’s winner, Sun Young Yoo.
“I don’t feel like it’s revenge,” Kim said recently in Phoenix. “It’s a great opportunity. I’ve just said it again and again: I feel very fortunate to have a great chance.”
It’s just a missed putt.
No matter how much Kim wants to keep that mantra and move on, she can’t persuade others to leave it alone. Last July, Kim sought the help of Vision54 mental coaches Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott.
“I think another player who is more immature would be more deeply devastated,” Nilsson said. “For her young age, she has been remarkable with that.”
Kim, 24, contended for the first time since the Kraft last week at the Kia Classic, missing a 5-foot par putt on the 72nd hole to land in a playoff against Beatriz Recari, only to lose on the second extra hole. It wasn’t a 14-inch putt, but it couldn’t have been easy to sleep that night.
A pinched spinal nerve left Kim sidelined for five weeks after last year’s Kraft. When she returned for the ShopRite LPGA Classic, Kim fulfilled an earlier pledge from her most recent victory. She donated $102,300 – the rest of her earnings from the $220,000 winner’s check at the 2010 Lorena Ochoa Invitational – to Special Olympics. (The rest of the check had gone to Ochoa’s foundation.)
“I think everybody sees them and feels for them,” Kim, sitting cross-legged on a chair in the Seaview clubhouse last June in New Jersey, said of Special Olympians. “But we are living a busy life. We sometimes forget what’s around us.”
That’s the heart and big-picture perspective everyone loves about I.K. Kim. As Mallon said, she’s an old soul.
As one of the first South Korean players to tackle life in the U.S. on her own, Kim has developed a wonderful streak of independence. She plays the guitar, loves The Beatles, is learning French and used the offseason to visit friends in Europe. She even spent four days in silent meditation last fall in Korea.
“She wants to embrace the deeper perspective,” Marriott said, “but she keeps getting shallow questions.”
Like many in the game, Lewis thinks Kim is the best player on tour not to have won a major championship. When Mallon was still competing on the LPGA, she said Kim often
came up to her and asked for putting tips.
“Are you kidding me?” Mallon said. “I’d take your putting stroke in a second.”
Beth Daniel, a Hall of Famer who once battled the yips, said Kim is the type of player who can put the episode behind her.
“The thing is, nobody else can,” Daniel said. “It’s their own fear. . . . It’s a visual you never want to see in golf.”
Daniel once watched Amy Alcott miss a short putt when her ball hit the cup liner and bounced back out of the hole. For years after that, Daniel thought about Alcott’s putt every time she faced a similar situation.
“Sometimes the way they cut the hole can affect how the ball lips in and lips out,” Mallon said. “Actually that literally drives us crazy if they get the paint (to highlight the hole) too close to the top of the lip because it crusts. It makes the ball lip out rather than lip in.”
Golfers can have delicate minds after dealing with such hair-splitting scenarios. Daniel conceded that some players wouldn’t be able to putt well again if they were to experience what happened to Kim.
Her name is now a verb: It’s not unusual to hear golfers lament after a lipout, “I I.K. Kim’d that.”
As Golf Channel focused on her during live coverage of the Wegmans LPGA Championship last June to set up a video produced earlier in the week, Kim tapped in a par putt from the left side with her putter head turned upside down.
“She’s got great humor,” Rankin said as the broadcast cut to a segment of Kim showing the many ways one can make a 14-inch putt. Kim made the putt with one hand and then with the putter between her legs. She chipped it in. She pulled out her driver and stroked it in like a long putter. She made one left-handed.
“My friends told me that a lot of great players have finished second at the majors,” Kim said with a shrug.
Rankin recently said that Kim would have to win to erase what happened at the Kraft, but the truth is that missed putt always will be a part of her story.
“Even though you do everything right,” she said, “sometimes it doesn’t come out the way you want it.”
The good news: This story is only getting started. m