Christina Kim is not the best player on the LPGA tour--not yet,
anyway--but she is the most colorful. Kim leads the tour in hair
dye, with shades drawn from the corner of the Crayola box that is
heavy on oranges and reds. Overcome by patriotism at last year's
Kraft Nabisco Championship, she tried to color her hair red,
white and blue. "Unfortunately, it came out maroon, yellow and
purple," she says. "Those must be the colors of some country. I
don't know ... Albania?"
This is an article from the May 17, 2004 issue
Her sartorial style is as flamboyant as her coiffure. On the
course Kim usually wears one of the dozen or so Kangol hats she
owns in an array of colors. She does most of her shopping at what
she calls "a wannabe death-metal store," and her clothes are a
riot of outrageous prints. "The first time I played with her, she
was wearing a blue Kangol, red-and-blue-plaid pants, a red shirt,
and she had red hair," says Kim's friend Grace Park. "Only
Christina. I say that a lot: Only Christina. She brings so much
charisma and excitement. We need more of that out here."
As for her, uh, unique fashion sense, Kim says in her beguiling
way, "I like to dress like my personality--bright and shiny." Of
course, a kaleidoscopic look is also a good way to differentiate
oneself on a tour where five regulars have the last name Kim.
Though she recently turned 20, this Kim still talks like a
teenager, her conversations peppered with hip-hop slang and
dramatic overstatements. Of a close friend she says, "I need her
like an artery." A certain three-wood is not merely outdated,
"it's three days older than God." Oh, yeah, and bitch is a term
"I have a story that's funny, but it's not ha-ha funny," Kim said
recently, apropos of nothing. "I was in Sac-town [Sacramento] for
the Longs Drugs where, by the way, I played like ass [poorly] but
that's not the point of the story. There was this woman and she
was the devil incarnate...." You get the point.
It would be easy to dismiss Kim as a Margaret Cho in spikes but
for the fact that she has a ton of game. She made one of the most
audacious debuts in LPGA history at last year's Welch's/Fry's
Championship, shooting a fearless 62 in the third round to earn a
spot in the final group on Sunday in her first tour start. (It
wasn't her first 62, either; Kim shot that magic number at the
2001 U.S. Girls' Junior Championship, the lowest round ever, male
or female, in a USGA event.) With a steady 70 in the final round,
Kim finished fourth. At year's end she was 49th on the money list
($215,632) and fourth in rookie of the year points.
Kim is off to a good start this year as well. She ranks 26th on
the money list after Sunday's 16th-place finish at the Michelob
Ultra Open. Her season's highlight, though, was her rock-solid
performance at the LPGA's most glamorous event, the Kraft
Nabisco, in late March. At Mission Hills--a course she calls "a
conniving little bitch"--she shot four straight rounds of par or
better to tie for eighth. Says Lorena Ochoa, the 2003 rookie of
the year, "Christina has amazing potential. She will be as good
as she wants to be, and she wants to be really, really good."
Ochoa got a firsthand look at Kim's competitive drive in 2002,
when both were apprenticing on the Futures tour. They battled to
the final round of the last tournament for the top spot on the
money list, with Ochoa edging her rival by a scant $242. Kim had
joined the Futures a year earlier as a 17-year-old amateur after
dropping out of San Jose's Oak Grove High during her junior year.
(An honors student, she passed the California State Proficiency
Exam, which allowed her to qualify for the tour as a high school
graduate, but she still had to wait until her 18th birthday to
Kim's single-minded pursuit of success led to a unique way of
preparing for her rookie year on the LPGA tour. In November and
December 2002 she crisscrossed the country with her father, Man,
and mother, Deok, in a sagging 1995 Dodge van, visiting 21 of the
venues she would encounter on the upcoming LPGA schedule. The
Kims were snowed on in Toledo and in New Rochelle, N.Y., where
Christina played a memorable round during which she kept losing
her ball in three inches of powder. What inspired this madcap
"My dad thought it would be a good idea," says Christina. Of
course he did.
In only a few years the overbearing Korean father has become an
LPGA cliche. The dynamic between Christina and Man is more
nuanced and interesting, given that he's from Masan and she's a
wild child born and raised in Silicon Valley. "Korean culture is
so misogynistic," says Christina. "I'm an American and proud of
it, but I'm also of Korean descent, so I guess there's a little
culture clash going on here."
Park amplifies the point: "He's way more Korean than she is."
Man, 53, is a gifted athlete who played college tennis in South
Korea. After studying kinesiology, he taught physical education
at the high school level. Along the way he picked up golf and
claims to have shot a 79 "three months and 10 days" after first
touching a club. He was good enough that he made a living
teaching golf at various municipal courses after the Kims
immigrated to San Jose in 1981.
He introduced the game to his son, Maeoll, who's now 22, and his
other daughter, Gloria, 23, but it was Christina, the youngest of
the brood, who blossomed under his rigorous tutelage. "My brother
is the most naturally talented golfer I've ever seen, but he had
a hard time dealing with my dad," says Christina. (After a spell
as an accordion-playing surf bum, Maeoll has finally decided he
wants to become a veterinarian.)
When Christina was 11, Man made her take 500 practice swings a
day in their backyard for a month before he allowed her to hit a
ball at a driving range. As she cut a swath through the amateur
ranks, her edge was sharpened in cutthroat matches with her dad.
These days they always play for money, including a recent match
in which Christina lost $400 due to a series of brazen presses.
That she refused to pay up, citing Man's longstanding debts from
previous losses, is a source of endless needling in the family.
In his daughter's nascent pro career Man has served as her
caddie, coach, agent, business manager and chauffeur. (The only
role he doesn't play is fashion consultant. When Man suggests
more understated outfits, Christina has a pat response: "The only
way I'd wear that is if I died and you got to dress me for my
funeral.") From a technical standpoint it is hard to argue with
the tight, powerful swing the Kims have built together. Last year
Christina was 11th on the tour in driving accuracy, and at the
U.S. Women's Open she led the field in fairways hit and greens in
regulation. (She finished 22nd only because of her putting, which
is maddeningly streaky.)
Where things get sticky between father and daughter is inside the
ropes in the heat of competition. The player-caddie dynamic is
delicate enough without the accumulated baggage of a
cross-cultural, intergenerational, father-daughter relationship.
"They are always pecking at each other," says Park. "He'll say
things to her that I would never take from my caddie. I mean,
he'd be gone that second. But she gives it right back. I remember
we were paired last year, and she hit a chip about 20 feet past
the hole. He says, 'Why did you hit it so hard? I told you to
land it here.' She says, 'Hello, I wasn't trying to hit it that
far.' He says, 'Next time do what I say,' and she says, 'You know
what? I'm going to make this putt just to shut you up.' And she
did. Then she flips the putter at him and says, 'I told you I was
going to make it.' The next hole they were laughing like nothing
This year the Kims' on-course relationship almost reached the
breaking point at the season-opening Welch's/Fry's. Straining to
repeat her magic of a year ago, Christina shot a shaky 75 in the
first round. She is so driven to succeed that afterward there
were tears in her eyes and her voice was husky with emotion. Man
had a one-word description for the round: "Terrible." He said it
loud enough for his daughter to hear. Christina rallied with a 67
to make the cut, but it was not a promising start.
The following week she went 75-72 to miss the cut at the Safeway
International, leading to what she calls "some heavy duty
soul-searching" between her and her dad. There were even serious
discussions about Christina finding another caddie. Some of her
issues with Man come down to simple personality differences.
Between the ropes Christina is a bubbly, fun-loving character who
preens for the crowd. Man would like to see a more sober
approach, one that matches his own demeanor. "She doesn't play
good when she's relaxed," he says. "Intensity! Concentration!
Aggression! That's what she needs."
Father and daughter had a meeting of the minds at the Kraft
Nabisco, which followed their period of introspection. "He backed
away and told me I was on my own, and he let me do what I wanted
to do," says Christina. "That relaxed me, because it was like, If
I make a mistake, I'm only letting myself down."
A defining moment came during the third round. Three days of
scrapping had left Kim at the bottom of the leader board as she
came to the par-5 18th hole, which has an island green. After a
drive in the 290-yard range, she was 234 from the hole and
stewing on whether or not to go for it. Man put down the bag and
said, "Don't look at me, it's your decision." Christina had never
attempted to reach the green in two, even in a practice round,
but then again, she had never bombed such a perfect drive. When
she pulled her three-wood, Man walked away and turned his back.
He couldn't bear to watch. She ripped a hard draw that cleared
the water by a couple of yards and nestled in the center of the
green, inspiring Man to sprint across the fairway for a hug and
series of knuckle-bumps.
"That was an important moment for us," she says. "That whole week
was a little bit of a milestone."
So is she finally ready to outgrow her father and take on another
caddie and/or coach? "We know it's inevitable," she says. "I
can't be the good daughter forever."
Still, it can be hard to break free from your parents when you
travel with them in a van. Even when she's not on tour, she can't
get away: Christina continues to make her home at the family
apartment in San Jose. She does not have the temerity to broach
the subject of dating with Man. "He's anti-penis," she says.
"That's not to say he's pro-vagina. He simply doesn't want
anything or anybody to interfere with my golf. I'm dying to have
my own space. I want my own stuff. But for practical reasons our
arrangement makes sense for now. I mean, I'm not even old enough
to rent a car."
That's the funny thing about Christina Kim--she has such a big
personality, but she's not yet her own person. As she says, "I'm
20 years old and only starting to discover who I am." She'll
figure it out, sooner rather than later. In the meantime she will
have to ride shotgun on the journey to self-discovery. From
tournament to tournament, her dad does the driving.
"The only way I'd wear that is if I died and you got to dress me
for my funeral," Christina says when Man suggests an outfit.
"They're always pecking at each other," says Park of the Kims.
"He'll say things to her that I would never take from my caddie."