Choi and Kim remain the lone South Koreans to win THE PLAYERS, and both will take their shot at a return to the winner’s circle May 8-13 at TPC Sawgrass. Any title defence will not come easy. No PGA TOUR player has ever won The PLAYERS in consecutive years.
“I actually heard that after I won last year,” he said. “Someone told me that there hadn’t been any back-to-back champions. I’ve noticed a lot of champions that come back don’t play well. I would like to change that, and I’m preparing hard to come back and defend my title this year.”
Kim believes the pressure of high expectations following THE PLAYERS hindered him late last season and early this year, as evidenced by the mixed bag of results thus far for the now-22-year-old. He had a trio of top-10 finishes, finishing third at the OHL Classic at Mayakoba, 10th at the Sentry Tournament of Champions and tied for ninth at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play in late-March. But he has finished no higher than 35th in any other start. He’s currently 49th in the FedExCup Standings and 50th in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“Entering last year, I noticed that all of the players in the field were ranked higher than me,” he said, laughing.
Kim will carry an air of confidence with him into this year’s PLAYERS Championship. He understands how to navigate the vaunted Stadium Course, has experienced the adrenaline that comes with a Sunday round atop the leaderboard and now knows what it feels like to return as a champion.
He faces a big test as all the TOUR’s big guns - Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Rickie Fowler, Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Phil Mickelson and Patrick Reed - have already won tournaments this season.
It has all the makings of a repeat performance. “My shot-making has been great, my putting has been great, and it’s given me a lot of confidence in my game,” he said. “I know the short game is very important at this course and this tournament, so I’m going to go in with a lot of confidence and just work hard on my game.”
That confidence has always been a work-in-progress since he first burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 2012. And with all the adversity he faced giving way to newfound maturity, he believes he’s positioned himself for a long career in the United States.
“I just need to eat Korean food,” he said, laughing.