- When 22-year-old Si Woo Kim reaches the first tee at Sawgrass, he'll be referred to by a moniker that no one else in the best field in golf, can lay claim to: the defending champion.
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — It's going to be repeated ad nauseam this week, so one more time won't hurt anybody: The Players Championship features the best field of any golf tournament in the world. Before Paul Casey pulled out to nurse a nagging back injury, all 50 of the top 50 players in both the FedEx Cup standings and the Official World Golf Rankings were set to tee it up. Now, it's a measly 49.
Despite boasting a field of world-beaters year after year, the Players' list of past champions isn't exactly a who's who of golfing greats. Yes, Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson have won here, but so have Craig Perks, Tim Clark and Stephen Ames.
And then there's Si Woo Kim, who became the youngest Players champion in history last year when he won 45 days before his 22nd birthday. Kim is still just 22, so it's entirely too soon to chalk him up as a surprise winner. He's a prodigious and precocious talent who earned his Tour card through Q-School in 2012 as a ... wait for it ... 17-year-old. He actually couldn't become a PGA Tour member until midway through the 2013 season, when he finally turned 18. There is good reason to believe that more significant wins are in Kim's future, perhaps even in one of the four tournaments that trumps a Players title.
That doesn't mean it wasn't an absolute shock when Kim staved off—here it is again—the best field in golf last year. It absolutely was. In his four previous starts to that magical week in Florida, he missed two cuts including the week before, withdrew from a tournament after opening with 76 and finished a solid-but-uninspiring t22 at the Houston Open.
"Coming into last year's tournament, I didn't even really think about winning, to be honest," Kim said through an interpreter. It's clear he can understand questions, but he doesn't yet feel comfortable enough to express himself to the media in English. "I just wanted to play my best."
His play after the tournament only furthered the narrative that his Players performance was a bit of a fluke, as he cut or withdrew from six of his next eight starts after the Players.
So what's up with all the withdrawals? Kim dealt with a back injury throughout the 2017 campaign. It was an injury that not only made it difficult for the South Korean to play while on the course, but perhaps more damaging to his golf performance, made it virtually impossible to practice as a PGA Tour pro should. In total, he withdrew from six events during the 2017 season. For perspective: Tiger Woods, a golfer more synonymous with injury than perhaps any other, has withdrawn from eight tournaments in his entire PGA Tour career.
Kim's back has, mercifully, relented this season. So much so that he hasn't pulled out of a single tournament. In 16 starts on Tour this season, he's secured more top-10 finishes (four) than missed cuts (three). A couple weeks ago, he lost to Satoshi Kodaira in a playoff at the RBC Heritage, a tournament he would've won easily had his putting stroke not cruelly abandoned him down the stretch.
The odds are firmly against Kim repeating as a champion. But the irony is that he returns to the site of his early career-defining win as a better young man—you grow more from 21 to 22 than 41 to 42, for certain—and a steadier, better golfer. Kim currently sits at a more-than-respectable 28th in the FedEx Cup standings, and he's the second-youngest player ranked in the top 50 in the world rankings (Kim, 40th in the world, is about a month older than China's Haotong Li, currently ranked 45th).
"After I won this tournament, a lot more people recognize me, recognize my name," he says when asked what's changed since this time last year. "But the most important thing is confidence. Winning the Players, the fifth major, has given me a new confidence when I come to tournaments, on the first tee."
On the first tee here this week, he'll be referred to by a moniker that no one else in this, the best field in golf, can lay claim to.
The defending champion.