AUGUSTA, Ga. — The first tee stood vacated, waiting for the next group of players to arrive.
But this wasn’t an ordinary first tee. This was the first tee. The tee where Arnold, Jack, Ben, Sam, Tiger and Phil began their magical journeys to winning the coveted green jacket.
This was the tee where logs of wood serve as tee markers. The tee where the starter simply announces the next player’s name, with no microphone and with no special booth. The first tee on a course where a sandwich still costs just $1.50 and a domestic beer is just $3.00 (an imported beer, the most expensive item on the menu, is $3.75).
It’s the tee where tradition lives on as the rest of the world blows past.
And on this bright April day, a 21-year-old college student stepped up to the tee.
“Fore please, Lee-on Kim now driving,” the starter announced.
His name was pronounced incorrectly, but he didn’t even appear to notice.
As the golden sun shined through the thinning gray clouds a little after 12:30 that Thursday afternoon, Lion Kim went through his normal routine — three steps back from the ball, three practice swings. He pointed his club at the target, closing one eye to get the best possible angle. One deep breath, and he was ready to take his first step into the bright lights of the Masters.
For any normal golfer, the lights would have been blinding.
But Kim was unfazed.
He striped his drive down the middle of the fairway and onto golf’s biggest stage, as two of the game’s most successful players — two-time Masters Champion Jose Maria Olazabal and 20-time PGA Tour Champion Davis Love III — walked ahead of their playing mate for the round.
After one hole, Kim was in the red numbers at one-under par.
“It was the best start you could ask for as an amateur,” Kim said after the round.
But for Lion Kim, every golfer’s brightest dream culminated in the darkness of Bryant Park Golf Course in Greensboro, NC.
It was July 18, 2010, and Kim was one hole away.
After a grueling week in which he advanced through six rounds, out-playing 154 of the country’s best amateur golfers and after a day in which he and opponent David McDaniel had already endured a seven-hour rain delay, Kim stood on the 13th hole tee box (his 31st hole of the day) in the 36-hole championship round.
He needed to tie or win only one of the next six holes to clinch the US Amateur Public Links Tournament and garner an invitation to the most prestigious tournament in golf.
As he walked to the tee box, darkness stood between the tee and the 13th green. And it wasn’t just dark.
“It was pitch dark,” Kim recalled.
Kim and McDaniel were faced with a decision — play the hole in the dark or come back the next day, a Monday, to finish the tournament.
“I just told him, ‘Hey, let’s keep playing,’ “ Kim said. “I’m sure he wanted to get it over with, too. It had been a long week for both of us.”
The pair decided to play on.
On a hole where normally two to three volunteers roam the fairways to spot any errant shots, 30 volunteers now peeked through the oncoming shadows, looking to help in any way they could.
“They had to listen to hear the ball land in order to find where the ball went,” Kim said. “David (McDaniel) and I just had to judge with how we hit it since we couldn’t see where the ball was going.”
Minutes later, as 70 to 80 people squinted through the darkness in hopes of catching a glimpse of the man who would eventually walk the pristine fairways of Augusta National, Kim stood on the 13th green, glaring down the 8-foot putt for par that stood between him and Augusta.
With the white back of the cup as the only reference point of his final destination, Kim pulled the trigger.
With each rotation, the ball became brighter. And as the ball made its final spin toward the hole, it dropped back into the darkness.
Lion Kim had punched his ticket to the Masters.
“That’s what all golfers live for,” Kim said. “One of the first things that popped in my head was, ‘Now it’s official. I am going to get an invite to the Masters.’ And that is truly awesome.”
Darkness completely engulfed Bryant Park Golf Course on that July night, but the Augusta light had only begun to shine on the senior from Lake Mary, Fla.
One flash of a camera, and Lion Kim had a new idol.
It was the summer of 2002, and the then-12 year old Kim was at the Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando as a spectator.
After a practice round, Kim spotted fellow countryman KJ Choi and asked if he would take a picture with him. Choi gladly accepted.
The picture now hangs in Kim’s room as a constant reminder of what he wants to become.
During the second practice round of the Masters, Kim walked the fairways of Augusta National with his idol, talking about life on the PGA Tour and how to attack each of Augusta’s ferocious greens.
Kim first communicated with the 17-time PGA Tour Champion a few months before the tournament, when Kim’s instructor Brian Mogg contacted Choi’s agent, who said Choi “was very happy about (the opportunity to play with Kim).”
And for Choi, the picture was a reminder of how fast the years have gone by.
“It’s very scary,” Choi said. “In the crowd there are kids, and five or six years later it’s like, ‘KJ, you met me.’ But it’s very exciting and I’m proud of (Kim) for getting to play here.”
But for Kim, it was just the beginning.
Louis Laurence had seen how the sun shines brighter on the fairways and greens of Augusta National.
He had been an employee of Augusta since 1987, and he caddied for former Masters champion Tommy Aaron in the 2002 and 2003 Masters.
After Kim tried four separate caddies in Augusta months before the tournament, the 67-year old Laurence, a former pro, was Kim’s “perfect fit.”
In the end, Laurence could handle the brightness better than the other three candidates. And he did his best to give Kim an idea of what it would be like to play on golf’s biggest stage.
“I told him, ‘All you have to do is put blinders on and play golf,’ ” he said. “Because Monday, this place is going to take on a transformation that people are not ready for, especially the amateurs.
“There are people everywhere. It’s a daunting experience.”
In a field of 99 players, Kim was like the cool new kid in a big high school — the guy many people had heard of but no one really knew much about.
But in Augusta, he couldn’t hide in the comfort of the back of the room or in the darkness of his locker.
Lion Kim was in the spotlight.
A familiar face greeted Kim on Monday, April 4 — the first official day of practice rounds in Augusta.
It was the face of a man Kim had known for years, someone he had grown up playing with and admiring.
When Kim was 10 and realized his deep passion for and talent in golf, he started working with Mogg — one of the best in the business. And that’s when he met the now seven-time PGA Tour Champion and 2007 Masters Champion Zach Johnson.
And as the 21-year old college student stepped onto the first tee at Augusta National that Monday, Johnson made him feel like he belonged.
It wasn’t Kim’s first time at Augusta — he had visited three times earlier in the year to get a feel for the course — but it was a first of many other things.
“It was my first time playing in front of a real crowd,” Kim said after the practice round. “But I wasn’t nervous at all, partially because I was with my good buddy (Johnson).”
Johnson and Kim spent the practice round working mainly around the greens — testing the speeds, analyzing the breaks, and getting a feel for golf’s fiercest greens.
“I was very pleased that a guy of his caliber still keeps up with a friend like me and just tries to catch up on me,” Kim said. “That just shows his character — nice, genuine.”
Added Johnson: “We had a great time. He’s matured a lot, and his golf game is really good.”
Masters Monday was his first real taste of golf’s brightest spotlight, but Kim was certainly not alone in his quest to handle his new-found recognition.
One of many traditions at Augusta National is to have the amateurs stay at “the Crow’s Nest” — a dorm-like room at the top of the infamous clubhouse.
Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods both stayed there as amateurs, and the tradition oozes out of every standard piece of furniture in the room.
But Lion Kim politely declined the offer to stay at the Nest — his family was with him for the week, and he wanted to spend as much time as he could with them.
And while most players arrived to Augusta in private jets or in the comfort of first class seating, Kim decided to drive down with the people he called his “lucky charms” — his parents, Yong and Hyun.
“It’s gonna mean a lot,” Kim said the week before the Masters about being at the tournament with his parents. “I’m going to have a great support system, and it’s just going to give me some confidence and definitely make me feel comfortable out there.”
But it wasn’t the first time his parents served as a calming influence in Kim’s young golfing career.
Hyun was in Greensboro with her son during the US Amateur Public Links, following him on every hole. And when he needed some reassurance the most — during the seven-hour rain delay in the final round to qualify for the Masters — Hyun was there for him.
“I have to give all the credit to my mom,” Kim said after his victory. “We talked a lot. She kept me relaxed. We talked about everything, even from my childhood days. Literally everything that we could talk about we talked about in those seven hours.”
With his family by his side, Lion Kim was ready to embrace the spotlight.
He was hitting balls on the range on Masters Tuesday as he was approached by a man with dark hair spilling out of his PING visor.
“Oh, are you Lion Kim? I signed up to play with you (in the par-3 contest),” the man said.
It was Kim’s favorite player — Bubba Watson, the lefty from Bagdad, Fla. known for his booming drives and playful personality.
The rising star and two-time PGA Tour Champion introduced himself as if Kim wouldn’t know who he was.
“That was pretty amazing,” Kim said the day before the par-3 contest. “We’re going to have a blast. He’s obviously a great young stud out here, so I’m going to learn a lot from him as well.”
The next day, Watson and Kim, along with three-time PGA Tour Champion Aaron Baddeley, played in the contest together.
Kim finished the contest even — five strokes back from the winner Luke Donald — but competing in the par-3 contest was about much more than just scoring well. In fact, historically it has been a curse to win the contest, as the winner almost always goes on to do poorly in the actual tournament.
“It was great,” Kim said after the round. “Bubba and Aaron were great sports, and we had a lot of fun just staying loose and not taking it too seriously.”
While the mood remained light throughout the contest, it became more serious as the sun set and the lights dimmed one final time before the opening round of the 2011 Masters. Kim was slated in the 12:31 tee time with Olazabal and Love III the next day.
After the perfect opening to his Masters debut on Thursday, the bright southern sun began to shine even brighter on Kim — and he began to show signs of his youth.
The high of his first-hole birdie had faded — quickly.
Bogey on the fourth hole. Bogey on the sixth. Bogey on the par-5 eighth.
A birdie on the ninth provided a brief respite, but it was followed by another bogey on the 10th.
And then, the round-killer: double bogey on the 11th — the first hole of Amen Corner.
Kim hit a nice drive but yanked his second shot left into the pond that lines the left side of the green.
And even he knew at that point things were beginning to unravel.
“The second shot, I was not committed,” Kim said. “All week, I’d been hitting a draw, and obviously I had to cut that shot a little bit. And I came right over it.”
But then Kim began to show signs of life. Par on the 12th and birdie on the 13th — the final hole of Amen Corner.
He finished the round at 4-over (76), and even after the flurry of bogeys, he was still within striking distance of the weekend.
On Friday, he came out ready to face the bright lights like a seasoned veteran.
Six pars, two birdies and a bogey en route to a front nine score of 35 (1-under) and 3-over overall — suddenly, he was right back in the hunt to make the cut.
“I knew if I shot under par on the back, I would have a good chance of playing through the weekend,” Kim said after the round. “I had a number in mind.”
He parred all three holes of Amen Corner, hitting solid shot after solid shot and knocking down five-to-10 footers with ease.
He remained solid on holes No. 13 through 17, parring each hole and hanging around the cut line at 3-over. As he walked up to the 18th tee, Kim knew he had one last chance to extend his dream to the weekend.
Lion Kim stood on the 18th green on Masters Friday, studying a nearly impossible 35-foot putt for birdie from just off the green.
He knew he was hovering around the cut line, and in order to have any chance to make the cut, he’d have to sink the bomb.
“That putt is one we practiced all the time,” his caddy Laurence said.
It was a putt that would have to make the shape of a horseshoe before making it to the hole — the type of putt that drives anybody nuts at the putt-putt course.
After minutes of deliberating, Kim let the putt loose, aiming a solid twenty feet away from the hole in order to give the ball a chance to work off the slope and back toward the hole.
The ball hit the peak of the horseshoe and looked as though it were about to come back down the slope — but it hung up in the fringe, refusing to budge and stopping nearly 25 feet away from the hole.
“If that putt comes off, it comes right to the hole,” Laurence said. “We knew it, and I just wanted to make sure he got it there. It wasn’t way too much hard, it just wouldn’t come off.”
Instead, he was left with a 25-footer for par — a putt not much easier than his original look at birdie.
He missed the par putt and tapped in for bogey for a two-day score of 148 (4-over).
He took off his visor and shook hands with Olazabal and Love III.
It was over. Lion Kim had missed the cut.
Kim tried to remain positive in his post-round interviews.
After all, he did still score better than nine former Masters Champions and both his playing partners, Olazabal and Love III, and he was just a 21-year-old amateur.
“Competing as an amateur, it doesn’t get any better,” Kim said. “I scored better than I did yesterday, but I’m still disappointed with the way I finished there … But overall, it was a great week. I can not complain about anything.”
As fans gathered around him, Kim walked back to the clubhouse to share a meal with his family.
And then, he went back to work.
He walked back to the range, hitting shot after shot, thinking about what he could do differently next time.
Maybe next time, he won’t hit his second shot left on the 11th. Maybe next time, he’ll be the Tour pro in the picture with the starry-eyed fan. Maybe next time, they’ll be able to pronounce his name correctly at the first tee.
Maybe next time, he’ll have that same putt on the 18th, and he’ll know the break just a little better. And maybe next time, he’ll drain it.
As darkness overcame the hallowed grounds of Augusta National that Sunday, the sun set on the 2011 Masters.
But for Lion Kim, the sun has just begun to rise.