Sei Young Kim comes to her homeland’s BMW Ladies Championship nearing the end of yet another strong year to her career ledger. She’s won twice, at the MEDIHEAL Championship and the Marathon Classic presented by Dana, along with five other top 10s. Those victories bumped her career total to nine wins, tied with Na Yeon Choi for second-most wins behind only Inbee Park among active Korean players.
The success wasn’t imaginable to Kim after a rough stretch near the start of the year due to back pain. After opening with two top-15s in five starts, Kim’s back started to bark at her. Kim uncharacteristically finished in 36that the Kia Classic and missed the cut at the ANA Inspiration. The off week after the first major of the year offered no respite to her pain, as Kim forced herself through four painful rounds at the Lotte Championship to finish in 62nd place.
Sitting near the Hawaiian shores, Kim realized that her back couldn’t handle her swing. She went to a doctor for answers.
She learned there was nothing structurally wrong with her back. Kim just faced the repercussions of 18 years of golf on her 26-year-old body.
She turned to YouTube for pain solutions, learning the most from Lebron James’s body maintenance routines that have kept him healthy throughout his storied NBA career. She’s added Pilates to her workout regimen to help strengthen her back. Kim also quickly changed her swing to finish more upright and have a 50/50 weight balance on her feet throughout her takeaway to minimize the pressure on her back.
Most players reserve those drastic changes for the offseason, as it takes time to commit and trust a swing change. Kim plunged right in to great effect. The next week, Kim finished in second place at the HUGEL-AIR PREMIA LA Open before her playoff victory in San Francisco. It’s not a surprise she hit her stride immediately after the change. Kim was a natural at golf from the first time she swung a club.
An eight-year-old Kim was watching TV alongside her father Jung Il Kim and mother Jung Yung Kim. With a whack, Kim sent a ball struck by a badminton club into the family television, shattering the glass. Her father howled with laughter. Her mother admonished her.
Her Dad then bought Kim golf clubs. He brought her to the driving range, and it instantly clicked. Kim striped driver after driver.
“My Dad’s friends told him, ‘She has a talent.’ After he got that opinion, he took me to the driving range every day,” Kim explained to LPGA.com.
Kim’s father went all in. He pushed his daughter to learn golf like he teaches complex taekwondo moves, with consistent repetition.
He took her to the driving range an hour a night for two years before she worked with another coach. His approach tailored her into a feel player, freeing Kim from the anchor of mechanical thought.
The only times Kim has struggled with swing changes are when she’s asked to focus on mechanics. Kim learned this lesson when she was 15, after making the Korean national team for the first time in 2007. She wanted to better prepare for a future professional career and turned to an Australian coach to take the next step in her game. He drilled her with mechanic after mechanic, forcing the feel-oriented Kim into a tailspin of thoughts. Instead of taking a step forward, she felt like she took a step back.
“After I got my lessons, I played a couple of tournaments. I forgot how to hit the ball, because I was still thinking of my new mechanics when I was hitting the ball,” Kim explained while laughing at recalling the struggle.
That’s a lesson Kim is continuing to apply this season. At the Cambia Portland Classic in August, after an opening round 71, Kim sat in 68th place. She then detonated at Columbia Edgewater, carding a 61 and setting the tournament record at the 47-year old event. The adjustment was getting back to her core golf roots. “I got too many distances. I need one distance, not a lot of distances, and I realized it didn’t help my golf. So I told Paul (her caddy), just give me one number. I'm just going to hit the pin. That's the only one way,” Kim explained after the career-best effort.
That simplified approach may propel Kim to her simplified goal list for 2020. She wants to represent Korea once again in the Olympics. With her ability to adjust, it wouldn’t be a surprise.