How fitting that Sei Young Kim would have her breakout season in the year of Covid-19. That’s the way things have gone for this enormous talent from South Korea. She’s been so good so quietly for so long – both as a player and a person – yet there was always a longer shadow hiding her greatness.
But no longer.
The seemingly endless anonymity that has graced Kim as comfortably as her gentle smile was greatly reduced Sunday when she added the Pelican Women’s Championship presented by DEX Imaging & Konica Minolta to the major title she picked up in her last start – the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.
Despite a dozen LPGA titles, at least one each of her six seasons on Tour and two years with three Tour victories, Kim is often left out of the conversation when the topic is best of the current generation.
But no longer.
As good as Kim has been in her LPGA career – 51 top-10 finishes and a near-permanent place in the Rolex Rankings top-10 – she has had a series of one-word superstars nudge her from the spotlight, names like Inbee, Lydia, Ariya, Stacy, Lexi, Brooke and Jin Young. For a long time, they all had something she lacked – a major championship.
But no longer.
Kim, closed with a 69 in the final round at Pelican Golf Club in Belleair, Fla., and finished at 14-under-par 266, holding off a determined effort by Ally McDonald by three strokes.
At the age of 27, Kim is playing the best golf of her career right now and that’s saying a lot considering how good she’s been. She just might be the best player in the women’s game. The Rolex Rankings say she’s awfully close.
Kim is now the third-leading South Korean LPGA winner of all-time. With 12 titles, she broke out of a tie with Jiyai Shin and trails only Inbee Park with 20 and the woman who started it all for Korean golf – Se Ri Pak with 25.
Now, not even Covid-19 can keep Kim from the headlines. This kick-out-the-jams 2020 campaign was kick-started when she birdied the last hole of the last event of 2019 to win the record $1.5 million first prize in the CME Group Tour Championship.
Sei Young then started this season with a T-7 at the Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions and fifth place in the Gainbridge at Boca Rio – both in January – before the Coronavirus put a clamp on the season.
When she returned to the Tour in late August after the shutdown it was with a T-5 at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship followed by T-18 at both the ANA Inspiration and the ShopRite Classic. Then Kim threw in a couple of exclamation points with back-to-back wins at KPMG and Pelican.
“After the win at CME, I got more confident,” she said Sunday, still feeling the bubbles of her champagne bath on the 18th green.
“I [was] able to be more relaxed even [in] major tournaments, in the KPMG,” she said. “So I think that major win [will] help me at the U.S. Women’s Open.”
Since 2015, when she wrapped up the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year with two tournaments left, Kim has quietly fattened her resume. She set the 72-hole scoring record at 31-under-par 257 in the 2018 Thornberry Creek Classic, won an LPGA event in five countries and has lived among the Rolex Rankings top 10.
Kim won in her second LPGA start, taking the 2015 Pure Silk-Bahamas Classic when she birdied the first playoff hole against Ariya Jutanugarn and Sun-Young Yoo. Later that year she won the LOTTE Championship when she chipped in on the last hole to force a playoff with Inbee Park, which Kim won by holing out for eagle from 154 yards.
In all, Kim is a perfect 4-0 in playoffs and none has gone more than one hole as she won three times with a birdie and once with that eagle. Through it all she has been the same humble woman.
With three tournaments to play, Kim leads in Rolex Player of the Year points, has a leg up on the Vare Trophy for lowest scoring average and will be well placed to defend her Race to the CME Globe title at the CME Group Tour Championship
There is also another major on the schedule – the U.S. Women’s Open at Champions in Houston after the Volunteers of America Classic the week after Thanksgiving in Dallas.
With a shy pause, Kim asked:
“No. 1 now?”
She was told she’s still very slightly No. 2 to Jin Young Ko.
“It means a lot because world ranking No. 1 is on my wish list this year, so that's my biggest goal,” Kim said. “Before, Olympic gold medal was my biggest goal but (the Olympics were) canceled. Might be next year. So I changed my goals and fixed my goals, and then, okay, I going to add world ranking No. 1 to my wish list.”
With three tournaments left, it is a goal well within reach.
Sei Young Kim was once an anonymous superstar.
But no longer.