Breaking down Tom Kim’s Tiger Woods-like start to PGA Tour career after victory at Shriner’s Open

Tom Kim is having a moment. The 20-year-old Korean known for his love of fast food and his choice of the name “Tom” because of his affection for a children’s play train by the same name is suddenly accomplishing things that haven’t been accomplished since trains were the primary means of transportation for most of the world.

After winning the Wyndham Championship in August in just his 14th start on the PGA Tour, Kim crushed at the Presidents Cup, where his 2-3-0 record belied the reality that nobody was a bigger star and nobody changed the perception of their future more than him. Then he took Sunday’s Shriners Children’s Open over Patrick Cantlay, and suddenly he’s the No. 15 player in the world while winning two PGA Tour events faster (18 PGA Tour events) than Tiger Woods (20 events).

Let the hyperbole wash all the way over you, courtesy of Justin Ray.

Kim is the youngest to get his second PGA Tour win in 90 years. He’s the youngest international player since 1900 to win multiple times on the PGA Tour. The only comparison for what he’s done in his tiny career thus far is to invoke the name of the best to ever do it: Tiger Woods. Those men are the only two golfers to win multiple times on the PGA Tour since World War II, and Kim was younger; he doesn’t turn 21 until next summer.

So the obvious question, it seems, is what to make of all this. What… is this? It’s probably not the second coming of Tiger. I think we can all agree on at least that. But when you’re part of a statistical category that includes only yourself and a legend of his caliber, it’s also not nothing. Kim needs some sort of context and projection around what he’s achieved.

So, let’s start.

It would be easy to write off the Wyndham and the Shriners as two easy golf tournaments to win and discount what Kim’s achievements are. However, Data Golf rates both tournaments among the 20 hardest for a regular PGA Tour pro to win throughout the year. Winning one might be an anomaly. Winning both, though? Hardly an aberration. Then there’s the way Kim has won his tournaments. He had good putting weeks in both, yes, but he also finished in the top 12 in approach shots in both events. Kim is a flusher, and flushers win a lot.

Statistically, Kim’s profile looks a bit like a slightly downgraded Collin Morikawa. There are much worse comps than “a slightly downgraded Collin Morikawa.” Morikawa is deeper off the tee, and thus gains more strokes in that category, but Kim is slightly better on and around the greens. While Morikawa is one of the best iron players of this (or any other) generation, Kim is a solid but not necessarily elite iron player. At least not yet.

So we arrive at the hardest part of all of this to project: improvement. Can Kim make a leap as a 21-year-old or beyond to become a +1.5 or 2.0 strokes gained player (this is the very upper crust)? Or will he stay where he is (around a +1.0 player), which is still very good and pick off a few tournaments when he has hot putting weeks?

It might be instructive to take a look at Kim’s personality to catch a glimpse around the corner of his career. While Kim is playful and exciting on the course, it’s clear that he’s not necessarily excitable, which is an important distinction. As a 20-year-old, it’s quite easy to be excitable, but in situations where Kim had the opportunity to get out over his skis, he has refused. Case in point: He was asked on Saturday night at the Presidents Cup whether he wanted to play Justin Thomas on Sunday in singles. There’s not a good answer to this question, and Kim realized that and neutralized the entire situation.

“Anyone, really,” he said. “Someone’s got to play someone. So I just want to play with anyone and try to get a point for the team.”

The First Cut podcast crew is back to bring you their recap for the Shriners Children’s Open and the LIV Bangkok event. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

This is how somebody who is going to mature in the right way speaks at age 20. It creates a bullishness about his career from the mental and emotional side that he understands how to be a professional and what it takes to improve into a future that is wide open for him and his gifts. However, he combines it with an innocence that embodies the 2021 Padraig Harrington quote about how there’s a sweet spot between gaining experience and losing wisdom that’s a hell of a place to exist.

“I mean, I’m playing on the PGA Tour as a 20-year-old,” said Kim after his second win over the weekend at the Shriners. “It’s hard to get tired of this. I’m a 5-year-old at Disneyland, for sure. That’s the way I would pronounce it.”

Then there is the question of the majors. Kim is incredibly short off the tee for a top 20 player in the world (even Morikawa is quite a bit longer than he is). However, a few of the 2023 major venues — namely Los Angeles Country Club and Oak Hill — might favor his game. The last time a major was held at Oak Hill, two of the shorter hitters in the game — Jason Dufner and Jim Furyk — were in the mix for the 2013 PGA Championship.

I don’t know what Tom Kim is going to be. Nobody does — not even Tom Kim. What I do know is that the PGA Tour is always in need of 20-year-old potential superstars who think correctly about the future even while soaking in the present. In a year in which there has been a lack of celebrating the right things, Kim represents so many of them that we love about golf, and it’s likely that he will for a long, long time.