DALY CITY, Calif. | Lauren Kim walked out the scorer’s tent behind the 9th green at Lake Merced on Friday to an unfamiliar scene. A Golf Channel camera was a few paces away. Kay Cockerill stood nearby, microphone in hand. A couple of reporters also milled about, kicking the grass and trying not to appear too eager, along with a handful of little-girl fans, Sharpies and pin flags at the ready.
This cadre wasn’t for another player in her group, or the group ahead or behind. They all wanted Kim - unfamiliar territory for the 26-year-old who lives about 40 minutes south of the golf course but who has only made one cut on the LPGA Tour since 2019.
Two consecutive 69s gave Kim the early lead on Friday in the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship, the first time she’s been at the top of an LPGA Tour leaderboard in the second round. She did her best to stay cool, smiling for the cameras and modulating her voice like an old pro.
“I've been kind of grinding away and hoping for results and kind of patiently waiting,” Kim said of what led to such a solid start.
She also noted that it’s a lot easier playing a home game. “This week it's just amazing to stay at home, sleep in my own bed, and just have the local support and know that people rooting for me are close by,” she said. “I think that's really driven me to just kind of let it go this week and hopefully keep it going on the weekend.”
She’s been driven by a lot of things. The Stanford graduate, who went Los Altos High School just a few miles away, almost quit the game in 2017. Her results were poor. She struggled on the Epson Tour, living like a gypsy, carrying her own clubs, and wondering if her life was meant for something else.
She called her college coach, Anne Walker, and spoke with Juli Inkster, a local hero who grew up in Santa Cruz.
“That took a lot of self-reflection,” Kim said of those days, which seem millions of miles away now. “I think I realized why I play the game in the first place and just started kind of appreciating the opportunity. I think it's really easy to get wrapped up in the grind of being on Tour -- whether it's the Epson Tour or out here (on the LPGA Tour) – you get wrapped up in results and all of the performance that goes with it.
“I think learning to enjoy the whole process and really be grateful is key,” she said. “You know, friends come up to me all the time and they're like, ‘It's amazing that you get to travel and play golf.’ People say that to you all the time. I play a sport for a living. Just to have the opportunity to play professionally, I mean, for however long I have, just that mindset kind of drove me (to continue).”
There isn’t a lot of joy in the grind of professional golf, especially if you’re missing cuts and seeing more red numbers on your balance sheet than on your scorecards. But Kim rediscovered her love of the game by getting away from it for a while.
“I think COVID, actually not playing last year, really helped my mentality,” she said. “I had a medical condition that prevented me from playing altogether, so I had to find joy in other parts of my life. I had to really focus on something other than golf. And I think that helped me become a more well-rounded person on and off the course.”
Those off-course activities included a lot of hiking and biking and communing with nature. “I got into cycling, backpacking, a lot of different hobbies, things that I felt like I couldn't really do being on the road all the time,” she said. “I love being outdoors. So, just having fun with it, making the best out of a really poor situation.
“When I found out I wasn't going to be competing, to have that taken away, I think that really helped me practice negative visualization in a way, looking at what my life would look like without golf. That just made me really grateful to be back out here. I think channeling some of that into the game has really helped.”
She didn’t hesitate to open up about her journey. Her family stood nearby, beaming with pride, not at the 6-under par total or the fact that she might hold her first 36-hole lead, but at Kim’s honesty and grit.
“I think I’m just going to enjoy it,” she said. “You know, weekends like this don't come very often, and when they do, you just kind of have to embrace it and enjoy it. And just being home, just, yeah, just makes it all the better.”