BETHESDA, MARYLAND | She wasn’t quite in a universe of one, but Sei Young Kim occupied a tiny minority early in the week of this KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. On Wednesday, just as the weather that softened Congressional Country Club rolled in, the 2020 winner of this championship was still hitting towering 4-iron shots on the range when asked about the hefty length of this newly redesigned course. Kim broke into a huge smile as she said, “Longer the better. Stretch it out. It’s a major.”
That wasn’t conventional wisdom the first few rounds, especially after Thursday when the field scoring average climbed north of 75. Some players were in tears. More than a few caddies grumbled. Even the LPGA Tour’s longer players like Nelly Korda said things like, “Long. It was definitely really, really long. Especially for me. I am one of the longer hitters on tour. It was long.”
Meanwhile, Kim kept smiling. Longer the better. Set it over 7,000 yards. Right in her wheelhouse.
“I like the long length because I have pretty good confidence with the long irons and with my hybrid and the 5-wood,” Kim said on Friday. “It depends on conditions. Sometimes my putting is really good, but sometimes my iron play is really accurate.”
Through three rounds, the smile continued. Kim was 5-under par on Saturday night, three shots out of the lead and tied for second with Lexi Thompson and Hye-Jin Choi, a perfect spot to make a run. It was also a position she kind of expected. Like Jack Nicklaus in his heyday, Kim loved hearing players bemoan the setup. She felt like she beat half the field before they ever teed off.
“Yeah, it still feels long,” she said late on Saturday. “And I still like this course. You need to have a good strategy. I have to play smart. If I miss, it’s definitely a risk, but that's the reason I like it.”
It isn’t just the length Kim hits it – although she is long (267-yard average so far off the tee in 2022, although that doesn’t account for the holes where she hits 3-wood) - the key is her trajectory. She is one of the few LPGA Tour players who also flights long irons high. Also, she has been deadly accurate with her short irons on some treacherous greens this week. From 100 to 125 yards, Kim has hit it an average of 13 feet. The field average is 22 feet 10 inches.
“The pin positions weren’t easy,” Kim said. “Some were all the way back, and even the others were on the edge. There were not many spots (to try to get close). If I tried to hit at the pins, it could easily have been in the bunkers. So on some holes it was better to avoid the pins.” Then she smiled again and said, “But I sometimes hit to the pins anyway. That made it go in the bunker. So, yeah, I just have to keep my focus on the middle of the greens. If I get the advantage on a hole, then I’ll try to get aggressive. If not, just clearly play smart.”
Kim has a flair for the dramatic. Her first two career wins came in playoffs, one with a holed-out 8-iron against Inbee Park. She has holed 20-footers for birdie on the final hole to win, and, at the 2020 KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, she hit fairways and greens in an intense final round to hold off Park again.
She will be in the penultimate group on Sunday, which, for her, is perfect.
“Honestly, it's real similar (to the first major championship that I won),” she said about her approach and feelings coming into the final round. “I'm not any more or less nervous. I just want to play the way I want to play tomorrow.”
Given how she has played so far, that might just be good enough.