This is Anthony Kim. It is 2008, and he is 22 years old and one shot away from earning his first win in a professional golf tournament. When he reaches the 18th green, he pauses, not only to line up his final putt but also, he later reveals, to let a simple fact swirl into his consciousness: My life is about to change. Kim taps the ball, and it clunks into the cup. He punches the air twice, screams, “Yes!” twice.
He is $1.2 million richer. “That walk up 18 was the best feeling in my entire life,” he says later that day. “I want to re-create that as many times as possible now.”
The feeling would prove fleeting. Four years after that first win, after more rousing victories that established him as one of golf ’s biggest stars, Kim took a sudden leave from the game. Injuries were hampering his play, and he needed time to heal. But beyond his physical troubles, some invisible, unknowable forces must have been churning inside him.
Because he never came back.
A full decade after Kim stopped playing professional golf, people are still fascinated by him, still curious if he might ever return. They wonder, in part, because of his talent. More than that, though, they wonder because he never bothered to explain himself. Kim walked away in 2012 without saying goodbye.
Kim was supposed to be the next Tiger Woods. Instead, he became the sports world’s J.D. Salinger. Sports Illustrated called him “golf’s yeti.” Pictures and stories hinting at his whereabouts regularly go viral on social media. Last summer, when the new LIV Golf circuit began recruiting players with huge, guaranteed sums of money, many people wondered: Could Kim, still just 37, be coaxed back? Sports careers are rare and valuable. They are hard-won, involving years of tedious and often lonely practice. And they are fragile, susceptible to the ravages of age and injury.
Kim’s total retreat, then, stirs all kinds of questions about sports and celebrity: What duty does a person have to his talent? What does that person owe to his fans? And in the age of TMZ and TMI, what does it mean, really, to disappear?
Kim was born and raised in Los Angeles, the only son of South Korean immigrants. Although his golf swing would come to appear effortless, his skills were intensely honed during his childhood years by his father, Paul, and a string of coaches. By the time Kim reached college, he could make a golf ball do whatever he wanted.
Two months after that first PGA Tour win came a second. It was only his second year on the tour, but he was operating with the prowess of a veteran. He finished the 2008 season with eight top-10 finishes, $4.7 million in winnings and a tornado of hype.
At some point during this ascent, Kim took out an insurance policy on his body. When injuries forced him to step away from the game, he began receiving monthly checks that reportedly would cease if he returned to competition. The payout, according to a Sports Illustrated article from 2014 that cited anonymous sources close to Kim, landed somewhere between $10 million and $20 million and was the primary reason, they said, for his prolonged absence.
Yet there has remained something unsatisfying about that line of reasoning. Kim last spoke publicly about his golf career in 2015, three years after he left the game. In an interview with an Associated Press reporter, he confirmed that he was receiving insurance payments, but he denied that the money was the reason he wasn’t returning to competition. He said he needed time to rehabilitate an assortment of injuries.
Those who know him say he splits time between Texas, California and Oklahoma. To answer a question on everyone’s mind: Kim plays golf, but only sporadically.
Adam Schriber, who has been Kim’s swing coach since he was a teenager, said in an interview that he played twice with Kim in the past two years. “It’s the same swing you remember,” Schriber said.
Kim is hardly in hiding, but still, any evidence of him engaging with society in even the most banal way tends to inspire wonderment.
The sports world craves neatly legible narratives. But Kim’s path offers a reminder of how frequently the industry’s most common tropes — the underdog stories and redemption arcs, the last shots and legacies and love of the game — fall short of capturing the complexities of the people who inhabit it.
Kim hinted at a worldview in a 2009 interview with Golf Digest, when he responded to a question about his apparent fearlessness on the course by deflating its very premise. “It’s just golf,” he said.
Schriber is reluctant to speculate too much on his friend’s mindset, but in his view, Kim’s childhood and the continually rocky relationship he had with his father had a deeper and more lasting effect on Kim than most realized.
The story of how Paul Kim tossed one of his son’s second-place trophies in the trash is part of Anthony’s lore. Later, when Kim was in college, he and his father had a fight that resulted in a two year stretch of silence between them.
Schriber doubted that golf, even during Kim’s loftiest moments, was the respite the young man needed it to be. Schriber was also there when, in his eyes, Kim got an early glimpse of an alternate path.
It was 2006, the summer after Kim left college. He was staying at Schriber’s house in Traverse City, Michigan, practicing golf every morning and sleeping on a couch in the living room at night. In the afternoons, he hung out with Schriber’s children, kayaking, fishing, hiking and doing all manner of other activities that he, as a child golf prodigy, had rarely had time to enjoy.
That September, Kim played in the Valero Texas Open, his first PGA Tour event. He tied for second, won nearly $300,000 and soon after moved into a condo in Dallas. But he never forgot those lazy days in Michigan. “Best summer of my life,” Kim said often, according to Schriber.