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Thursday, February 1, 2018

Michael Kim made quite a first impression as an amateur in the 2013 Open at Merion

   I had lost track of Michael Kim, the kid who finished tied for 17th in the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion Golf Club’s historic East Course a few weeks after wrapping up a sophomore season at California in which he won both the Nicklaus and Haskins Awards.
   I was writing columns for the Delaware County Daily Times during that Open at Merion and couldn’t resist the angle of the college kid contending because 42 years earlier, as a 16-year-old forecaddie in the 1971 Open at Merion, I, like many of the golf fans that week, became fascinated by “The Kid,” Jim Simons, the western Pennsylvania native and Wake Forest player who led that Open after 54 holes.
   Can’t remember if it was me or one of my colleagues who asked Kim if he had ever heard of Simons. Not surprisingly, he had not.
   There he was last week playing some pretty good golf on his way to finishing tied for 23rd in the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines. Kim was born in South Korea, but his parents emigrated to the United States when he was a youngster and Kim was a high school standout at Torrey Pines High School, so I’m guessing he’s played both the North and South Courses a few times.
   Kim was right in the thick of things last week after rounds of 69, 69 and 70 before falling off a little with a final-round 78 that left him with a 3-under 285 total.
   Kim, who’s still only 24, had turned pro at the end of 2013 after playing the fall portion of the season at Cal. He played on the Web.com Tour in 2014 and has played nearly 30 events on the PGA Tour in each of the last two years.
   Kim played in 28 events on the PGA Tour in 2016-’17, opening the campaign with his best finish, a tie for third at the Safeway Open in October of 2016. He pocketed just more than $1 million for the year, although it doesn’t look like that was good enough to get him into the FedEx Playoffs.
   Kim has struggled a little early in the 2017-’18 campaign with four missed cuts in seven starts, but he fired a 64 in the California desert in the second round of the CareerBuilders Challenge the week before his home game at Torrey Pines.
   It’s not difficult to believe that Kim is making steady progress in the big leagues of professional golf after the week he had at Merion’s East Course, the Hugh Wilson gem in the Ardmore section of Haverford Township.
   A tremendous downpour early in Thursday’s opening round had the 2013 Open behind schedule from the start. When darkness forced the second round to be suspended Friday evening, Kim was tied for eighth.
   He finished an even-par 70 Saturday morning and stood at 3-over 143 through two rounds. When he made three birdies in a stretch of four holes on the back nine of the East, he was tied for third and just two shots out of the lead. In the third round. Of the U.S. Open. He fell back a little on the East’s tough Back Five, but he was still tied for 10th after three rounds.
   Me and my colleagues in the media made a little bit of a star of Kim’s caddy, LaRue Temple, a 16-year regular looper at Merion. As a former Merion looper myself, it was great to see a local caddy helping a kid like Kim play his very best in the National Open and Kim was quick to credit Temple with filling him in on an East Course that has more than a little nuance.
   Kim struggled to a 6-over 76 in the final round, but his 10-over 290 total and a tie for 17th was a pretty nice finish for a kid who was still a month away from his 20th birthday.
   I wasn’t following the college golf scene as closely as I have the last couple of years, but that had to be a pretty special Cal team that spring. Kim was one of three Cal Bears in the field at Merion.
   Michael Weaver, runnerup to Steven Fox, who made an epic putt on the 37th hole of the final at Cherry Hills Country Club, in the 2012 U.S. Amateur also played four rounds at Merion, finishing 64th at 301. Teammate Max Homa also qualified for the Open at Merion, but did not make the cut.
   Kim’s strong showing at Merion couldn’t help but bring back memories of 1971 when Simons, the 21-year-old kid from Butler, Pa., battled Nicklaus and Trevino and all the rest and held a two-shot lead going into the final round after a brilliant 5-under-par 65 in the third round.
   Simons would finish tied for fifth, three shots behind Trevino and Nicklaus, the best finish by an amateur in the U.S. Open since Nicklaus finished tied for second behind Arnold Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960.
   There were a couple of other top-30 finishes by amateurs in that ’71 Open at Merion, a tie for 13th by Simons’ Wake Forest teammate Lanny Wadkins and a tie for 27th by Ben Crenshaw. Did those two guys turn out to be any good?
   Simons won three times on the PGA Tour and died too young in 2005 in the hot tub at his Jacksonville home. There were drugs in his system, but suicide has never been part of the narrative. More of an accidental death.
   His Wake Forest teammate Wadkins always described Simons as the ultimate grinder on the golf course, the type of player that the East Course at Merion has always rewarded.
   Speaking of Merion, I usually like to take a look at some of the alumni of Buddy Marucci’s 2009 U.S. team that rolled to 16.5-9.5 victory over Great Britain & Ireland in the Walker Cup Match held at the East late that summer.
   Five of them teed it up in the Farmers, although only Cameron Tringale, the former Georgia Tech standout, made the cut. He finished tied for 58th at 3-over 291.
   The three Oklahoma State teammates from that U.S. squad, Rickie Fowler, Peter Uihlein and Morgan Hoffman and former Georgia standout Brian Harman, all failed to make the cut, but they have all become solid professionals with Fowler and Harman coming off big years in 2017.
   Fowler, No. 7 in the World Golf Ranking, finished sixth on the 2016-’17 PGA Tour money list with a more than $6 million in earnings, a ho-hum year for him. Yes, he’s a flashy guy and he does a lot of commercials, but he can play. He is certainly in that best-player-without-a-major discussion right now, but you can’t help but get the feeling that Rickie’s got a major in him somewhere. And he’s still only 29.
   Harman had a breakout year in 2017. The little left-hander was every bit the Georgia Bulldog with seven top-10 finishes and a win in 30 starts as he earned nearly $4.4 million and rose to No. 20 in the World Golf Ranking. He battled every step of the way before finishing tied for second behind Brooks Koepka in the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
   I will still argue that the most talented player on that 2009 U.S. team was Uihlein, who you will finally start to see on the PGA Tour on a regular basis for the first time this year. The 2010 U.S. Amateur champion chose to travel the world on the European Tour rather than take the Web.com route to the PGA Tour.
   Uihlein won the European Tour Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year Award in 2013 and has a win under his belt. A couple of forays on the PGA Tour last year made him eligible for the Web.com playoffs and then he claimed a victory in one of the playoff events, the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship on the tough Scarlet Course at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio.
   And that made the globe-trotting Uihlein a full-fledged member of the PGA Tour. Look out. That’s all I’m going to say.
   The third member of the 2009 U.S. team’s Okie State Cowboy Connection, Morgan Hoffman, earned nearly $1.3 million in 2016-’17 and finished 86th on the money list.
   But it was a fairly stunning announcement that Hoffman made in December that has earned him quite a bit of notoriety. Hoffman is suffering from muscular dystrophy, a diagnosis that was several years in the making after Hoffman realized his pectoral muscle was atrophying.
    The 28-year-old plans to play as long as he can and become a leader in the fight against a disease for which there is no cure. That U.S. team had a lot of character, something that Hoffman’s reaction to this news reveals once again.
   Bud Cauley, a University of Alabama product, won more than $1.5 million and finished 72nd on the money list for 2016-’17.
   And then there is Tringale, who did make the cut at the Farmers. He struggled a little in 2016-’17, pocketing $792,814, but he has been a consistent performer on the PGA Tour.
   Oh yeah, there was one guy on the losing GB&I squad in 2009 who has been making some noise lately. That would be Tommy Fleetwood, who won the European Tour’s Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship last month and has risen to No. 13 in the World Golf Ranking.
   You could have watched them all, up close and personal, on a couple of really neat days in September of 2009 on my favorite golf course in the world.

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