Lion Kim had just one thing between him, a career day and a NCAA Championship berth. On the 17th hole of his final round at the Central Regional on Saturday — the 53rd hole of the weekend — Kim was in a sand trap for the first time all weekend.
But Kim holed out from the bunker for an eagle, leading the Michigan golf team to its first-ever Regional title and propelling the Wolverines to set a single-round program regional record of 275 shots.
Michigan edged out Illinois by two shots to claim the top spot in the 14-team field.
Kim’s eagle highlighted his final-round 65 — tying a career best — and gave him a share of the top score of the weekend. Michigan’s captain posted the second-best score (205) in Michigan history for a 54-hole tournament, becoming a co-medalist for the weekend alongside the Fighting Illini’s Luke Guthrie.
“It was so much fun,” Kim told the Athletic Department of his day-long battle with Guthrie. “He and I knew we were tied for the lead and we really went after each other with birdies and eagles here and there.
“He knew he had to make the putt on 18 to tie me and he made a 10-footer for birdie to tie me, but you have to give him a lot of props for his effort. It was so much fun, you sometimes almost want it to end the way it did.”
And while it ended just right for Kim, the tournament didn’t start off nearly as well. Kim’s ailing ankle nearly kept him off the course.
“I did not want to hurt this team because of me pulling out or being injured,” Kim said. “That was the last thing I wanted. I told myself to gut it out. It was painful. I limped all three front nines before it warmed up.”
Added Michigan coach Andrew Sapp: “Lion (Kim) leading the way for us, hurt and everything, was just a truly amazing and courageous effort. (His ankle) was hurting him worse today than it did yesterday, but I guess it loosened up and the adrenaline helped him make it through. For him to just make it through, and for that matter even play, and then be the co-champion, just incredible.”
Entering the final day, Kim sat at sixth on the leaderboard and Michigan was sitting in third place behind Alabama and Illinois.
But the Wolverines rode the hot swings of Kim, junior Matt Thompson and freshman Joey Garber — whose 209 tally was a career best — to a come-from-behind finish.
“We just tore up the back nine — it was awesome,” Sapp said. “At one point, I was talking with the Illinois coach on No. 12 and they were just tearing it up and I said to him, ‘You are going to run away with it.’ And then low and behold, they started backing up and we started making birdies and just kept going from there.”
The program’s first regional title punched Michigan’s ticket to the NCAA Championships for the second time in three years. The NCAA Championships will run May 31-June 6 in Stillwater, Okla. The Wolverines haven’t posted a national title since back-to-back championships in 1934 and 1935.
“Seeing these guys come under the gun and win this thing was just fun,” Sapp said. “It was especially fun for me because the last three regionals we were sweating everything out until the final putt. This time we were just trying to win it instead of making the cut. It made it a lot more enjoyable for me, for sure.
“All five guys really had a great, great event. When you have four guys finish in the top 20 and two guys in the top five, you know you are going to have a good chance to win.”