Anthony Kim is not who you think he was

February 25, 2024

Kim was a very good player, becoming just the fifth PGA Tour pro in the previous 30 years to grab three victories before age 25. A week after that third win he authored a final-round 65 to finish third at the 2010 Masters. Kim played on an undermanned American squad that upset the heavily favored Europeans at the 2008 Ryder Cup, a performance that beget a now famous photo of Kim parading an American flag in triumph and pride. In a vanilla sport desperately lacking interesting characters, Kim was one of the few not named Tiger who possessed a gravitational pull, a magnetism spurred by flashy style and aggressive play both on and off the course. That his emergence coincided in an era where golf was short on marketable attractions didn’t hurt his standing.

This confluence of talent and charm laid the foundation for Kim’s mythology, although what ultimately led to the building of Kim’s legend had little to do with what he did but rather what he didn’t. Even as the game gets younger and younger at the top levels, the runway for those on the backend of their careers extends thanks to equipment gains and advancements in sports sciences such as training and recovery. And, unlike other athletes, golfers don’t retire. There are no farewell tours or jersey ceremonies or transitions into coaching; they just keep going, a notion aided by the parachute that is the PGA Tour Champions. Kim was the aberration, the rare star in golf who burned out rather than faded away. Following that bronze at Augusta he played just two-and-a-half more seasons, years that were plagued by injuries and poor performance. By 2012, he retreated from the spotlight and mostly hasn’t been seen since.

What’s lived on is what provides the kindling for Kim’s hagiography. The white belts emblazoned with a silver “AK” buckle. Setting an Augusta National record with 11 birdies in one round. Getting called out by Robert Allenby for partying until 4 a.m. at the Presidents Cup after Kim beat Allenby, 5 and 3, in a Sunday singles match. The guy who played with a child-like joy.

What’s forgotten is reality.

Kim was very good. He was not great. In 2009, the year he made the Presidents Cup team, he was outside the top 50 in strokes gained. Injuries certainly hampered performance, and it’s difficult to quantify how much a broken body has on results. Nevertheless, in a full season in 2011 Kim had just two top-10 finishes in 26 events, and the following year he made just two weekends in 10 starts. History also has kindly buried the mental demons Kim battled. He had the driver yips, and many in the game point to those problems off the tee as the true catalyst for what drove Kim into early retirement. His name was never synonymous with work ethic, and there are few golfers who age gracefully without that in tow.

That is Kim’s true past, and here is the hard truth of the present. He is now 38; only three players (Brian Harman, Keegan Bradley and Jason Day) are in the world’s top 30 who are in his age range. Golf is much, much deeper than it was a decade ago, and Kim’s game—one that was predicated off of distance—is the chief currency in the modern sport. There’s also the inconvenient fact that he hasn’t played a competitive round in 12 years. To think there wouldn’t be atrophy from a performance that was already heading south is ignorant or obtuse, for that’s not how time in sports works.

In his absence, Kim has become a passport of cool among fans, in the same vein that naming obscure former players or remembering jersey numbers are signs of devoted following to a sport. And the possibility of his comeback personified the idea that no matter our present we can still wage against the pressures of our past with the hope of what we can still be, and come out on top. Hell, some just miss watching a guy play with reckless abandon in a sport where competitors are more frequently taking a paint-by-numbers strategy. Unfortunately, that love and mystique instantly becomes compromised in a return besieged by missed cuts or finishing 40th in an exhibition league for something called the Cleeks. His return threatens to tear down what has been built since it was built on something that was never there.

Nostalgia only works as a thought exercise, and any resurrection because of it is a road to disappointment. There’s been enough of that in golf as of late. The best thing Anthony Kim can do is remain in the shadows. Some things are best left in the past, where they can enjoy an existence they never truly had.