- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2008

He probably doesn’t know it, being such a kid, but these are the best times for Anthony Kim. Because only good things have happened in his professional career - beginning with a tie for second in his very first tournament - he’s a stranger to the self-doubt that stalks even successful golfers.

With Kim, who pulled away Sunday to win the AT&T; National by two strokes, there’s no sense of limits … at least, not yet. Granted, he’s not quite in Tiger Woods‘ class as a prodigy, but he has won as many tournaments at this age - 17 days past his 23rd birthday - as, say, Phil Mickelson (two).

(Tiger, just for the record, had won seven, and Jack Nicklaus four. Plenty of famous names - Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson, Greg Norman, Ernie Els - hadn’t won’t any.)

So, yes, the imagination can run a little wild thinking about Kim and what might lie ahead. After all, he doesn’t strike you as the next Robert Gamez, who won twice as a rookie in 1990 and didn’t record victory No. 3 until 15 years later. His game is just too solid, and he hits the ball too darn far.

Dean Wilson, one of his playing partners in the final round, described him in one word: “Awesome.” To which he added: “He has all the tools. For a guy who hits it that far, he really hits it straight. He never does anything out of control. Very confident, very aggressive in the way he plays. He’s always shooting at the pins. He’ll win a lot of tournaments.” As for majors? “I don’t see why not.”

Granted, the AT&T; National had one of the thinner fields this year, especially with host Tiger home rehabbing his surgically repaired knee. But Kim seized the opportunity when the other third-round leaders didn’t, firing a 65 on Congressional’s rain-softened par-70 layout to finish 12 under and beat out Fredrik Jacobson, Jim Furyk and the rest.

Once he pulled into a tie for the lead by holing a 6-foot birdie putt on No. 7, he wasn’t to be denied. Two more birdies followed at Nos. 9 and 10, and the race was on for second place. There was no catching him at that point, hardly a hint of trouble the rest of the day. All he needed was to get within sight of the trophy and …

“I want to beat everyone I play against,” Kim said afterward, “whether I’m friends with somebody or not. When we’re inside the ropes, I don’t mind hammering on somebody. I love beating up on my friends back home.”

The greatest champions need that kind of ruthlessness, that kind of insatiableness. Woods certainly has it. Tiger would, well, limp around a course for 91 holes if it meant he could win the U.S. Open. But that’s just part of it. Reaching the top rung of a sport also requires a discipline and single-mindedness that, when he first turned pro, Kim didn’t really possess.

“My preparation and work ethic [at the outset] couldn’t get any worse,” he said. Even so, he made 20 of 26 cuts last year, his first full go-‘round on the tour, but half the time he finished out of the top 25. This, to him - a three-time All-American at Oklahoma - was simply unacceptable. He doesn’t remember which tournament it was, but he came to the conclusion that “if I’m going to finish 35th, 25th every week, I don’t want to play golf. The reason I play is because I love the feeling of competing and being in the hunt. I love the little butterflies you get in your stomach.”

This year, Kim has gotten himself in the hunt more often. In addition to victories here and at the Wachovia Championship, he had a tie for second at the Heritage and a tie for third at the Hope. He looks at the rest of the tour schedule, with Tiger laid up until next year, as a “time for the young guys to step up and make a statement.”

There’s no taller mountain to climb in all of sports than Mount Tiger. The man has won 65 PGA Tour events, 14 majors and the heart of a Swedish swimsuit model - and he’s only 32. Part of you roots for Kim - heck, for anybody - to challenge Tiger like Jack did Arnie and Tom Watson did Jack. But another part of you fears for him, wonders whether Tiger’s unassailability will stunt Kim’s growth the way it has discouraged Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and so many others.

Fortunately, the kid is smart enough not to get too far ahead of himself. He realizes “I’ve got to win about 13 more majors” before he could begin to threaten the greatest player of all time. Still, he said, “I’m sure [Tiger] wants people contending. … That lights a fire [in] his belly, too, to be in the hunt and have people step up and see what he’s made of.”

I think we already know what Tiger is made of. It’s Kim’s constitution we’re curious about. Will his newfound dedication and disdain for ordinariness - that is, his refusal to “finish 35th every week” - make him a viable Woods opponent … or just Tiger’s next victim?

The absent tournament host called to congratulate the young champ after his victory. “He told me to just keep working hard and the sky’s the limit and there’s no reason to stop now,” Kim said.

But with Tiger around, winning everything in sight, it’s a different kind of sky. In fact, you might say there’s a very low cloud cover. It will take a lot for a player to punch through that, to be able to reach for his own stars. We’ll see whether Kim has the stuff.

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