Mental strength key to Kim’s defence at Sawgrass

Si Woo Kim became the youngest Players Championship winner last year.  Photograph: Getty Images
Si Woo Kim became the youngest Players Championship winner last year. Photograph: Getty Images
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Due to Is still to be dotted and Ts crossed, commissioner Jay Morrish will not, contrary to earlier speculation, be releasing the PGA Tour’s 2018-19 schedule next week. Two of the biggest changes are already known, though, with the US PGA Championship moving to May and, in turn, the Players Championship nudging forward to March.

In becoming part of the circuit’s “Florida Swing”, the Players Championship will become a key event in the build-up to the Masters instead of the so-called “fifth major” seeming as if it marked the return of many of the top players from a post-Augusta break and, at the same time, be the start of US Open build-ups.

In the case of next week’s event over the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, that will be for Shinnecock Hills, venue for this season’s second major in June, though, based on the evidence from 12 months ago at least, the Players Championship doesn’t really play a big part in hinting what might lie ahead in that particular tournament.

It produced a surprise winner, after all, in South Korea’s Si Woo Kim. Just 21 at the time, he produced a bogey-free closing round to finish three shots ahead of South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Englishman Ian Poulter. It was Kim’s second PGA Tour victory, joining his compatriot, KJ Choi, in landing one of the biggest prize pots in the sport. That really mattered to Kim.

“When I started playing golf, Tiger [Woods] and KJ Choi were my major role models, but I think I would choose KJ Choi because he’s been a great golfer representing Korea, and I always wanted to be like him,” he admitted ahead of his title defence of the player who had influenced him most.

“Adam Scott is a really great golfer. His swing is really good, and he has a really great personality. But I think KJ Choi is a really awesome player and, since that moment [Choi’s Sawgrass success], I really wanted to be a champion some day of the Players.”

While Kim suffered a dip in form after his victory, he received a timely boost when finishing second in the RBC Heritage last month. Like all Koreans, his mental attitude is impressive.

“While I was a junior player, I learned that when you focus on the second place, you don’t do your play well,” he said in highlighting how he only had victory in his sights after hitting the front in the final round last year and looking comfortable despite being under the most intense pressure of his career.

His female compatriots, of course, have led the way for Korean golfers on the global stage.

“The Korean ladies are dominating the LPGA Tour, so I was kind of jealous seeing that,” confessed Kim. “I always wanted to represent Korea very well. I didn’t expect that I could be the champion of this tournament at this young age. I’m just so honoured to become the youngest champion. I’m just so proud that I won this championship.”

Woods, who achieved that feat in 2001 and 2013, will be among the defending champion’s title rivals next week. The 14-time major winner, who also landed the 1994 US Amateur Championship at TPC Sawgrass, is making his first appearance in the event since finishing joint 69th in 2015.

Bidding to emulate Sandy Lyle, who won in a play-off in 1987, Martin Laird and Russell Knox will be flying the Saltire. The pair have had contrasting fortunes in the event. Laird tied for second behind Matt Kuchar; Knox ran up up a 9 at the 17th, with its island green, two years ago.