The only disagreement among those covering Sei Young Kim’s historic victory at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship came when Kay Cockerill, who was walking with the final group for NBC, said, “You talk about all her accomplishments, but she just kind of rides under the radar. She’s not a player that immediately comes to mind and I think she likes it that way. She’s pretty laid back in her demeanor both on and off the golf course. She doesn’t really need to have her name up in big lights.”
Then Paige Mackenzie, who was the lead analyst for NBC and Golf Channel, jumped in with this rebuttal: “Oh, but I think she likes it, Kay. When you look at the wins she’s had, there is this sensationalism to them. Holing out from the fairway in a playoff to beat Inbee in her second win on the LPGA Tour. You saw that great putt to win the $1.5 million (at the CME Group Tour Championship) last year. She’s got some flash to her.”
Mackenzie then paused and said, “After the hole out to beat Inbee (at the 2015 Lotte Championship where she hit 8-iron in the hole from 154 yards) Sei Young was asked, ‘Is that the best shot you’ve ever hit in competition?’ She said, ‘No, in 2013, I had a hole-in-one on the 71st hole to win.’ So, she has a flair for finishing.”
The debate was mild and friendly, and wholly unnecessary. They were both right. Sei Young Kim doesn’t seek out the spotlight. She is the anti-diva, soft-spoken, mild-mannered, funny, genuine and as self-assured as anyone in the professional game. But when the spotlight does pan her way, she soaks in its warmth and brilliance. And she raises her game to meet the call.
That’s what we saw in Wisconsin when she set the all-time LPGA Tour scoring record of 31-under at the Thornberry Creek Classic. It’s what we saw last November when she poured in that downhill, breaking 25-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole to win the CME Group Tour Championship. It’s what we saw in her four playoff wins (two of which came in the first three months of her rookie season – she is 4-0 in playoffs). And it’s what we saw at Aronimink where, teeing off with three major champions prowling close behind, Kim put on a show.
She started with a two-shot lead over Inbee Park, Brooke Henderson and Anna Nordqvist, who have 10 major championships between them. The 27-year-old South Korean had 10 victories under her belt, many coming in spectacular fashion, she was still in search of her first major, a burden she admitted was weighing on her.
“It was a major that I really wanted,” she said on Sunday afternoon. “I dreamt of winning a major championship after seeing Se Ri Pak winning the first one for our country. To be honest with you, I didn't know it was going to take this long.”
Some things are worth the wait. This major, on this course, was one of those. For starters KPMG and the PGA of America did it again with the venue. Aronimink was a perfect major setup, with Donald Ross greens that looked like arthritic knuckles and the kind of length that made everyone think even par would be a good score early in the week.
Then Kim shot 65 on Friday, which included a 29 on the front nine (her second nine holes of the day). She followed that up with a 67 to take the lead into Sunday.
Cockerill and Mackenzie weren’t the only ones thinking about Kim’s history. With Park as her closest challenger midway through the final round, it was hard not to harken back to that Lotte Championship where Kim’s charisma burst into the collective consciousness of golf fans. Needing a chip-in from the water’s edge on the final hole to force a playoff with Park in that event, Kim did just that, looking skyward and pumping her fists in the air. Fifteen minutes later, she topped that drama by one-hopping an 8-iron into the hole for eagle.
That and other wins will always be special. But majors define careers. And Kim knows it.
“Definitely a different feeling,” she said. “Winning CME was great, it was really thrilling, but this one, it feels like a dramatic accomplishment. I'm very happy.”
Dramatic is a good word for it. Kim got off to what looked like a shaky start when she missed the second green and pitched to 20 feet. But when she poured that par putt into the hole and then birdied the third, she was on her way to a record-setting performance.
She made another great birdie at No.6 and then survived her only other test of the day when a wedge from 111 yards on the seventh spun off the front of the elevated green and ran 30 yards down a hill. But Kim didn’t panic or even appear frustrated. She clipped a perfect wedge shot that stopped three feet from the hole and made the putt for par.
From there it was off the races. Birdies at 9, 13, 14, 16 and 17 opened up a five-shot lead and a victory for the record books. Kim had an 18-footer for birdie on the final hole that would have tied Tiger Woods and Tommy Fleetwood for the course record at Aronimink. The putt kissed the right edge of the hole and didn’t fall. Still, her 63 was the lowest final round in tournament history, and her 266 total sets a new KPMG Women’s PGA Championship scoring record.
“I won't lie, I did feel the pressure starting last night,” she said. “But I really tried to stay composed. I feel the pressure every week but especially in a major championship. I've felt pressure every time I've played in one, and I feel it in the players' eyes when I come to a major championship. Everybody is really eager to win this one. So again, it’s nice to get it done.”