Chip on his shoulder: Michael Kim’s escape from the underdog role

After years of playing the underdog, Michael Kim is ready to shed the role.

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Kore Chan/Staff

Michael Kim dreams of Augusta. He sees himself sinking a 15-foot putt to win the Masters and to don the legendary green jacket.

But more importantly, Kim pictures himself winning against his golf idol, Tiger Woods.

“I grew up watching Tiger Woods win all those tournaments,” the sophomore says. “He is the most important reason why I’m playing golf as hard as I am now. Just knowing that he’s talented beyond anyone I’ve ever seen but still works so hard inspired me.”

Kim is not kidding around in believing he can win the Masters. His self-confidence is unwavering. As a golfer, he has little interest in anything but winning.

Throughout his golf career, Kim has carried a chip on his shoulder. He has been neglected by many, and he is ready to be done with it.

Beating Tiger Woods at the Masters would make it impossible for anyone to ignore him any longer.

“I never really liked the underdog role much,” Kim says.

In high school, many college coaches overlooked Kim.  Coaches worried that at only 120 pounds, Kim would not be even strong enough to drive the ball off of the tee. He was barely recruited out of college, ignored by many of the country’s top programs.

Now, Kim is the No. 2 individual golfer in the country and the Bears are No. 1 after being written off as the No. 24 ranked team last year.

But he has not forgotten those who did not think he could perform at the collegiate level.

When Kim was eight, his dad brought him to a driving range for the very first time. As a small kid, Kim’s size limited his ability to excel in other physical activities, especially in contact sports.

But golf was different. Kim showed promise, especially with his short game, which Cal head coach Steve Desimone has called “one of the best in Cal history.” The kid that emigrated from Seoul, South Korea a year ago displayed enough natural talent to inspire him to stick with it.

“For me, if you’re not good at it, I’m not going to do it,” Kim says.

When he was 13, Kim began playing in amateur golf tournaments. In two years, he had started playing in more competitive tournaments and was contributing to his Torrey Pines High School team, one of the best in the state.

In junior year of high school, Kim had his best golf season yet. But Kim’s recruiting mailbox remained empty — he only received offers from four schools, including Cal. After committing to Cal because of its academic reputation, Kim helped his high school team win the California State Championship his senior year.

Desimone took a chance on Kim when few others did. He had a feeling that the recruit had the necessary talent to make it in the next level. Kim just needed to get bigger and stronger.

“I’ve been always been a big believer that guys that have a passion and understanding of the game can be successful in college,” Desimone said. “I knew he would add some weight and distance, which he has. We’re sure glad to have him.”

Kim continues to be motivated by the coaches that did not believe that he was capable of competing at the collegiate level. This fall, the Bears defeated No. 2 Texas twice and No. 3 Alabama once — both golf powerhouses who snubbed Kim in high school.

Kim revelled in every minute of the victories.

“When we beat teams like Texas and Alabama, it’s definitely redemption on the inside,” he says. “It’s kind of telling everybody that we are just as good as they are. It’s more motivation for us to beat those teams.”

Coming into his freshman year, Kim was joining a Cal team that was overlooked by many. It was a position that he was grudgingly used to being in.

He made it a point to be on the golf course as much as possible, dedicated to proving his naysayers wrong. His hard work is a point of pride for Kim.

“If I could say anything to every golf team in the country,” he says. “It would be, “I am going to outwork you.” I want to be known for my work ethic more than anything.”

That work ethic has paid off. As a freshman last season, Kim helped the Bears win a school-record six tournaments, secured the first Pac-12 conference title in program history and finished third at the NCAA tournament.

Kim was an All-American last year and was named Co-MVP alongside sophomore Brandon Hagy and junior Max Homa.

“Last year we had a chip on our shoulder because even when we won 6 times, we never felt like we got the attention that we deserved,” Kim says. “It wasn’t until the end that they thought we were contenders.”

This season, Kim led the Bears to five tournament wins in an undefeated fall season. He capped off the fall by winning his first individual title at the last tournament, the Isleworth Collegiate Invitational held at Windemere, Fla.

Kim is still the youngest player on Cal’s starting squad. His older teammates make him grab their bags when the team embarks on road trips. He looks up to  Homa and tries to imitate Homa’s work ethic.

But pretty soon, Kim is going to be the one everyone else looks up to.

“We’re going to need Michael to be a leader,” Desimone says. “And things are moving in that direction.”

When he does become an experienced leader that is looked up by future underclassmen, Kim is certain to carry his distaste for the underdog with him.

For now, though, the Bears are No. 1. Kim is one of the most fierce golfers in the country. He’s not ready to go back to being the underdog.

From the disregarded scrawny high school golfer of the past, Kim is inching ever closer to his Masters dream, his ultimate goal.

If the stars align, he might soon be on the 17th hole at Augusta, one putt down to the great Tiger Woods. Then he will sink the birdie that will set up that 15-foot putt to win the whole thing.

But then, the ideal scenario sets up one obvious problem — a paradox Kim has been running away from all his life.

“Then I’d be the underdog, I guess.”

 

Contact Warren Laufer at [email protected]