Song-Hee Kim peered out beneath the brim of her cap with shy eyes, absorbing words in a language not her own and giving them the same careful consideration she brings to every golf shot. Her answers -- some in English, some through an interpreter -- offer an insight rare for any teenager, but especially for one living in a foreign land and competing under the pressure of having forced the Duramed Futures Tour to lower its minimum age to 17. All Kim has done with the opportunity to play professional golf in the United States is win five tournaments on the women's developmental tour -- the fourth on her 18th birthday in July -- to lead the tour in earnings with $76,287 and claim one of the five 2007 LPGA cards awarded Sunday at the season-ending tournament in Albany, N.Y. With victories as the barometer, Kim is the most successful teen in professional golf in 2006.
Among her insights, Kim grasps that success will be defined by more than what she achieves on the golf course. She wants to learn English so fans can get to know her and, with seven Kims already among the 32 Koreans on the LPGA, she is aware that building an identity will be no small task. With a smile that unfolds with the same grace as her golf swing, Kim asked playfully, "Have any ideas for a nickname?" Her fluid rhythm and gentle nature conjure up the sweet nectar of the bees. How about Honey Kim?
When Kim started playing, at 10, golf was merely another sport, along with tae kwon do and soccer, played by an extremely athletic child. By 12 she was taking instruction and soon was spending winter weeks away from her native Seoul in the warmth of Thailand, New Zealand and Vietnam, working on her game. After romping to a five-stroke victory at Futures Tour Q school last November -- putting the competition away with a 63 in the third round -- Kim began working with Gary Gilchrist of the International Junior Golf Academy in South Carolina.
"Her greatest ability is to keep everything simple," said Gilchrist, who has also worked with Michelle Wie. "The feel and rhythm of her swing is amazing. You can't teach that. She has a bit of Fred Couples' personality." Gilchrist said the 5-foot-8 Kim, who drives it about 260 yards, will work this offseason with fitness instructors at the IJGA to get stronger. Kim's age-limit petition also allowed teen standouts Angela Park and In-Bee Park to play the Futures Tour in 2006. The latter earned a 2007 card by finishing in the top five of the tour money list. "I am happy I was able to justify the tour's decision," Kim said.
Like any teenager, Kim is concerned about food, friends, music and movies. She has chipping and putting contests with Meaghan Francella for sodas ("I owe her three," Francella said), and learns English from Francella and Kristy McPherson, both of whom also earned 2007 cards, while teaching them Korean phrases. Song-Hee's likely greeting is "What's up?" and when asked how she's doing she replies, "Just chillin'." She prefers Korean food cooked by her mother in the hotel room, but her favorite restaurant meal is steak, french fries and strawberry lemonade from Outback.
Kim stands apart from other talented teens -- especially her fellow Koreans -- in two important ways. She plans to attend college when she graduates from high school in February, and her relationship with her parents lacks the tension apparent in many Korean father-daughter tandems. "The passion of golf daddies in Korea is so huge, they can't let go," said Jay Chang of HS Management Group, Kim's agent. While Song-Hee's father, Chun Bae, who runs a communications business in Seoul, and mother, In-Soon, travel with Song-Hee because of her age, they keep a careful distance.
"She is not under those pressures [of other Korean daughters]," said Duramed Futures Tour president and CEO Zayra Calderon. "Her father is extremely easygoing." That has made Gilchrist's work easier. "The family wants direction and then they stay back," said the coach. "You have to give [young players] space to think for themselves. Song-Hee is building her own inner strength and confidence."
Kim has been accepted into a four-year program at Yon Sei University, one of the best schools in Korea, and will build a study program that incorporates classroom work, online courses and independent study. "I want to learn many things other than golf in life," she said. "I want to make normal friends. I want to know what other people do. By attending university, I know I will be given more opportunities to do other things besides golf."
College starts in March, and Kim will likely miss a few early LPGA tournaments. The other rookies might need the head start. "I think Song-Hee is going to be the best Asian player the LPGA has seen," said Calderon. "She has that Annika-like concentration." And if she wins on the LPGA Tour as often as she did on the Futures Tour, she won't even need a nickname to stand out.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine