Players handle pressure in different ways. Some show signs of cracking. Some calm themselves with slow, deep breaths. Some never crack a smile, the intensity of the moment etched in each deepening line on their face.
Then, there is Sei Young Kim, who doesn’t just elevate her game as pressure intensifies, she seems to get happier as she does it.
When you look at the career of the third-round leader of the CME Group Tour Championship, you could easily say that holing a chip to get in a playoff and then holing an approach to beat a Hall of Famer for your second career win was a stroke of good luck. You could certainly look at shooting 31-under to set an all-time scoring record as a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of week. Sure, you could say that holing a curling 22-footer to win the largest paycheck in women’s golf at the CME Tour Championship a year ago was a great finish with a little bit of fortune. But when you combine all of those things together, throw in a near flawless major championship at Aronimink, and sprinkle a 5-0 playoff record on top, suddenly you look at Kim like a superhero – James Bond straightening the Windsor knot of a tie while saving the world.
It happens every time she’s in contention. As the stage gets bigger and the pressure intensifies, Kim’s game gets more aggressive while her personality goes the other way. In the hottest moments, Kim is as cool as Steve McQueen in a Mustang.
“My vibe was really good because of the warmer weather,” Kim said after a five-under 67 on Saturday, a round that gave her a one-shot lead of this CME Group Tour Championship going into the final round. “Then I was paired with Jin Young (Ko) and Lexi (Thompson). Those are my favorite players to play with, so yeah, it was fun.” Then she quickly added, “We didn’t talk much but it was very comfortable and chill out there.”
Kim might be chill on the inside, but her game is anything but placid. Saturday was a prime example. She began the day a shot off the lead held by World No. 1 Jin Young Ko, whom Kim has known since she was 14 years old and Ko was 9. They’re friends, but not terribly close.
“We’re friends and we met a long time ago. But we didn’t really have a lot of conversations (growing up) because of different timing,” Kim said. “When I got here (to the States and the LPGA Tour) she had just joined the KLPGA, so we just miss each other.”
They haven’t missed each other this week. Sunday will be the third consecutive round Kim and Ko have played together, with No. 2 chasing No. 1.
Ko began Saturday with a one-shot lead but by the fifth hole, they were tied, the only players to reach double-digits under par at Tiburon Golf Club. When Kim rolled in a 10-footer for birdie on 10, the lead was one. And when she birdied 11 and 13, it extended to three. Ko rallied with a late birdie on 17 and Kim three-putted from the fringe on 18 for her only bogey of the day to enter Sunday with a one-shot lead.
But as good as she strikes the golf ball, Kim’s shots are secondary to her swashbuckling persona. She should be called Sei Young the Lionhearted, a character for whom the moment is never too big.
“I just keep attacking every tournament,” she said on Saturday with a wink and a smile. “I mean, especially this year. I had two good wins already and the reason I think I had those wins is because I played very aggressive all year and kept pushing myself.
“I set my goals already before I came here. I will try to reach my goals, hopefully accomplish another one tomorrow.”
She didn’t mention the goals out loud on Saturday. But Rolex Player of the Year is certainly high on the list. Trailing Inbee Park in the race by a handful of points entering the final week, Kim’s back got a little straighter when asked if the award meant a lot to her. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “I try not to think about it during the round. But I let myself think about it occasionally.”
It never shows.
“Any time I have a lot of pressure I try to like just feel like it’s a practice round,” Kim said. “I don't press more. I just feel like, oh, this is just practice round or the practice putting green. That thinking helps me relax. And then, yeah, no more pressure.”
After she said that, she marched to the putting green to rid her mind of the three-putt at the last. She might take a practice-round mentality with her to the first tee, but the fire of competition is never far from the surface.
Lions often look like the most relaxed animals on the plain. Until it’s time to eat. Then, the herd scatters.
Sei Young the Lionhearted will be stalking her prey on Sunday.