HOUSTON, TEXAS | “Who is Jackie Burke?”
The question could have been asked by any number of young players preparing on Tuesday for the start of the 75th U.S. Women’s Open at Champions Golf Club. When you’re in your early 20s, Tiger Woods is as far back as the memories go and Jack Nicklaus might as well have played with hickory shafts.
But not knowing one of the game’s legends and all-time treasures could also be excused because of the genuine interest of the player who asked it. Sei Young Kim, currently ranked right behind Jin Young Ko in the Rolex Rankings and the hottest player in the women’s game, grew up in Korea where Se Ri Pak was as much history as you needed.
Kim is also incredibly bright and naturally curious. When she was told of Burke’s Hall of Fame career, including his two major championship titles in 1956, she said, “Oh, a long time ago. He built this course?”
Once told that, not only did Burke build Champions Golf Club, he also still comes to the club every day and will likely give a lesson or two before the week is out, Kim’s eyes widened. “Oh, wow, he’s still alive? I’d love to meet him.”
Given how she’s playing there’s a good chance Burke will find her. From holing an 8-iron out of the fairway to beat Inbee Park in a playoff in Hawaii, to setting an all-time LPGA Tour scoring record; from making a 22-footer on the final green at the CME Tour Championship to capture the largest payday in women’s golf history, to picking apart a difficult Aronimink Golf Club to win her first major title, Kim has always shown a flair for the dramatic. It would surprise no one if she was hoisting the U.S. Women’s Open trophy at the end of the week.
“I didn't prepare to get myself into those dramatic situations but I'm glad I was able to overcome (the pressure) and perform,” Kim said in typical understated fashion.
As humble as she is, she loves the spotlight. She is our game’s Tom Brady and Michael Jordan, the latter of whom she does know; the former, not so much. But sports history aside, Kim is one of those rare athletes whose game gets better as the pressure mounts. She is the person you want holding the ball for the final shot, the one you want taking snaps on the final drive.
When she has a must-make 20-footer, she pulls the putter from the bag like drawing a sword from a sheath. She looks calm, committed and in command. She knows she’s going to make it; you know she’s going to make it; and she knows that you know she’s going to make it.
Her game is solid. But her gift is that second gear.
“There's definitely pressure when it comes to those moments, but what I try to do is enjoy the moment, even during the pressure,” she said on Tuesday at Champions.
Two years ago, it wounded her not to make the Korean team in the UL International Crown. Back pain led to some inconsistency and she had to revamp her swing, getting a more rounded, old-school posture and adding some hip rotation to her takeaway - moves that will almost surely bring a smile and nod from Mr. Burke when he sees them.
The result has been five wins in 19 months, including two in her last two starts, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship and then in Tampa at the Pelican Women’s Championship. Throw in three additional top-10s in this abbreviated season and it’s easy to see why Kim is a favorite every time she puts a tee in the ground.
“I think there's a bit more pressure being a major champion coming to a major tournament,” she said. “But again, nothing is going to change with my preparation. I'm going to try and stay composed, try to finish strong.
“I feel like, previously, my game fluctuated quite a bit throughout each season. But this season what's been different was I have been able to be consistent with my performance. And because I'm playing well, I just want to continue with this momentum and try to finish strong.”
She has won on some of the most difficult courses the women’s game has ever seen – Aronimink, for example, where she shot an astonishing 14-under – and she has won on courses where 22-under only wins by two.
Her record-setting 31-under performance hasn’t been sniffed since she set it in 2018. And her last eight competitive rounds have been a cumulative 28-under par.
As an added bonus, she loves what she’s seen of Champions.
“These are really good golf courses,” she said. “I actually came here two weeks ago to play two rounds of golf. That was good as far as the preparation.”
Jackie Burke will love hearing that. He’ll probably tell her as much when they meet. And given how Kim is playing, that meeting is almost certain to take place sooner rather than later.