Late this coming Sunday afternoon, amid the cathedral of pines at Augusta National, there is a chance a player will have a green jacket in his grasp, if only he taps in from 12 inches.
At that point, said player’s caddie is hereby commanded to say, prior to the tap-in: “Remember I.K. Kim, brother. Remember I.K. Kim. Focus!”
On a Sunday in golf when Hunter Mahan became the highest-ranked American player in the world and Ernie Els officially failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time since 1993, all paled in comparison to the 23-year-old woman who missed a one-footer on 18 at Mission Hills Country Club to win the LPGA’s first major of the season, the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
I.K. Kim cupped her left hand over her mouth in horror.
In a Twitter-heavy society, where our thoughts are distilled to 140 characters, you only needed four to sum up what had happened:
Up to this point, Kim’s life was a good one, flush with happy moments. Born in South Korea and now living fulltime in San Diego County, Kim proved herself a star in women’s golf early, winning the U.S. Girls Junior in 2005 and earning stroke-play medalist honors at the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur at 17 years old. At 18, she finished as co-medalist at the 2006 LPGA Q-School. She carried the good stuff into her pro career, winning four times worldwide, including three on the LPGA Tour. Kim even proved big of heart, donating her entire winnings at the 2010 Lorena Ochoa Classic to charity – half to Ochoa’s charity in Mexico and half to one in the U.S.
And on Sunday in Rancho Mirage, a few happy steps away from a plunge into Poppie’s Pond, Kim was poised to add a major to her resume. She was 12 small inches from a 10-under finish and a one-stroke win over Sun Young Yoo.
Until … well, it’s almost as hard to write as it was to watch. It was failure – embarrassing, horrifying, historic failure – for all to see.
She missed the putt. Horseshoed it, somehow, when kicking it in was an option. Then lost the playoff. And it’s now part of golf lore.
Line ‘em up, in the encyclopedia of pathos: Doug Sanders, missing the shortie at the 1970 British Open …Scott Hoch (yes, as in “choke”), missing the 2-footer at the 1989 Masters … Jean van de Velde, turning into a verb at the 1999 British Open at Carnoustie …
The common theme in all of these is the flip side. For example, how many golf nuts, playing word association with the 1970 British, 1989 Masters or the 1999 British, say “Jack Nicklaus … Nick Faldo … Paul Lawrie.”
All three of those gentlemen were the beneficiaries of the aforementioned meltdowns, the players who got the Monopoly “Bank Error in Your Favor” card. Same for Martin Kaymer at the 2010 PGA Championship (Dustin Johnson’s Bunker Major) and Faldo again, at the 1996 Masters (Greg Norman, six-shot lead … ‘nuff said). The winners – which now include the LPGA’s Yoo – must think to themselves as they show off their respective trophies: “Here is my major championship trophy, courtesy of another human being’s utter devastation …”
A side note to all this is that Yani Tseng, previously known as the most infallible player the game had seen since an Escalade hit a tree in November 2009, will duck questions about her Sunday 73 when the Kraft Nabisco was hers for the taking. With three wins already this year, Tseng approached Beatles/Jeremy Lin territory when several fans showed up at Mission Hills Country Club with signs to prove their devotion to Tseng. One read: “NI-SANITY,” as Yani Tseng’s nickname is “Ni-ni” in her home country of Taiwan. Rock star, that Yani.
Except, she stalled on Sunday, almost inexplicably. Tseng’s birdie try to get into the playoff on the 72nd hole burned the edge. She tumbled backward in dismay but gathered herself enough to give a chatty interview to Kelly Tilghman of The Golf Channel afterward. Tseng said she’ll head to Augusta to collect her Golf Writers of America award for LPGA Player of the Year, thus ensuring years of good press from a grateful media corps. In the end, Tseng’s missed opportunity pales in comparison to Kim’s legendary gaffe.
What’s the lesson here, golf fans? Life is cruel, yes. Golf is crueler, indeed. And of course, finish your putting stroke. You never know when you’ll find yourself one foot from history – and then horseshoed into immortality.
I’m thinking Sean Foley will set up a deli-counter-styled ticket dispenser on the range at Augusta National. Tour players, you want a piece of Foley’s magic? Take a number!
Foley, of course, is most famous as Tiger Woods’ swing coach. He’s the coach who didn’t write a book pining for a popsicle. But Foley also teaches Mahan, who now has two wins this young season (the Accenture Match Play over Rory McIlroy, in case you forgot). He also teaches Justin Rose, who won the WGC event at Doral.
This is Foley’s early spring of glory: four wins in the last six PGA Tour events. While Hank Haney is busy hanging up on New York radio hosts who call him “pond scum,” Foley can roll down Magnolia Lane in a Rolls Royce, wearing a fur coat. He is the king of all he surveys right now, and he surveys three players who are serious threats to win the Masters.
Whatever Foley is teaching, it’s working. Haney spent many pages in his book saying he could never get Tiger to drive the ball with confidence, that it was his true weakness. Currently, Tiger leads the PGA Tour in total driving (distance plus accuracy), a terrifying thought for his competition. So, Foley has pretty much figured out what Haney could not. Number two in total driving is Mahan, who is now the highest-ranked American in the world, at No. 4.
At age 29, Mahan now has five PGA Tour wins, tying him with Dustin Johnson for most tour wins by a player in his 20s. Behind him are Bill Haas, Sean O’Hair and Anthony Kim. Note the common denominator in this group: None has won a major.
Is it time for Mahan to end that drought among the quintet? Unfortunately, by winning Houston, he has won the “Masters Par-3” of tour events. In other words, the old whammy. Nobody who wins the par-3 contest wins the Masters. And only twice in the last 25 years has a player won the week prior to Augusta and then worn green the following week: Sandy Lyle in 1988 and Phil Mickelson in 2006.
For those of you about to enter a Masters pool, Mahan has two top-10s in the last three years amid the azaleas. And now he has confidence. He also has Sean Foley, teacher of the stars. Look for Foley at Augusta National. He’ll be the one with the handler saying, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
Come on now. As if this is a question.
Back out to the 18th green at Mission Hills. Place I.K. Kim’s golf ball 12 inches from the cup. The order is simple. Garcon … give this young lady a mulligan! Please.
All eyes on Tiger as the peach cobbler is served on the veranda, of course. Yes, Rory McIlroy remains fascinating and held the 63-hole lead at Augusta last year. Yes, Phil Mickelson has won three of the last eight green jackets. Yes, world No. 1 Luke Donald needs a signature moment.
But to repeat: Tiger, Tiger, Tiger and in conclusion, Tiger.
Haney goes to great lengths in his book, “The Big Miss,” to note that Tiger has not won a Masters since the redesign changed and narrowed landing areas. Haney says this is because Tiger’s inconsistency with the driver dooms him by a stroke or three over the course of 72 holes.
The Tiger of 2012, however, leads the tour in driving. How this translates at Augusta National will remain a mystery to unfold over 96 glorious hours. I’m so fired up for this, I’ll even tolerate CBS’ Masters bumper music, which always makes me feel like I’ve phoned a funeral home and been put on hold.
Here are some weird Tiger stats to chew on, along with that cobbler: Since his last major, the epic U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, Tiger has not even played in four of the last 14, due to injury. He’s missed the cut in two more, the 2009 British Open and the 2011 PGA Championship. It’s the oddest of droughts, Tiger not playing on the weekend in six of the last 14 majors.
Here’s another stat to mull: In the six Masters that Tiger has played since his ’05 win over Chris DiMarco in a playoff, Haney is right – Tiger hasn’t won. His last six finishes, however, from 2006-11 are: T-3, T-2, 2nd, T-6, T-4, T-4.
It has long been my contention that Tiger will indeed pass Jack Nicklaus with at least 19 majors because Tiger has another decade in his prime – golfers are competitive into their mid-40s nowadays. Augusta National is like the womb for Tiger. There may be no place on Earth he feels more comfortable playing great golf. You give Tiger 10 years of Masters starts? He can easily win three, and find two more somewhere along the way at a British Open or a PGA Championship.
All signs point to one of those three to arrive this Sunday. Rory, Phil? It’s your serve, gents.