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Golf: Why Anthony Kim is hot property again

Twelve years after his self-imposed exile from golf, Anthony Kim is back, and the world's biggest tours want a piece of him

Anthony Kim hasn't played golf in over a decade.(File/Getty Images)

By Meraj Shah

LAST PUBLISHED 01.03.2024  |  05:17 PM IST

It’s no small measure of his brand recall that, after 12 years of a self-imposed exile, Anthony Kim is reportedly being wooed by both—the PGA and LIV Golf—Tours. According to several media reports, both tourneys are trying to coax Kim out of retirement to tee it up at their respective events after he sent feelers that he might be considering a comeback. The level of interest in Kim is astonishing, considering that he hasn’t played professional golf in over a decade, and no one really knows how it might turn out.  

The impulse to leave the limelight, inscrutable for most—and yet hardly without precedent —is an old one. Why Anthony Kim, a 26-year-old golf prodigy who was supposed to be the game’s ‘next Tiger Woods,’ simply walked away from the game in 2012 has befuddled golf fans and Kim’s peers alike. Kim wasn’t just another player: with near cult status amongst young people, Kim was that rare golf professional whose media visibility transcended the game. Incredibly popular, Kim wore his brashness unapologetically on his sleeve while playing a game not known for it.  

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He had the performances to back it up too. The flashy player won his first PGA Tour event as a precocious 22-year-old in 2008 and followed it up with another win a couple of months later. At the 2008 Ryder Cup, Kim took down Sergio Garcia 5 & 4 and wrapped up the season—his second on tour—with eight top-10 finishes and $4.7 million in winnings. At the 2009 Masters Tournament, Kim posted an 11-birdie 65—a record that still stands. He hung out with the likes of basketball legend Michael Jordan, partied publicly, spoke about wanting to set up a reality show, and generally brought a certain ‘cool,’ to golf that the game desperately needed. Not surprisingly, Kim was a marketeer’s dream. He signed a multi-million-dollar contract with Nike and attracted attention from brands in the entertainment and music business. You get the idea: Anthony Kim was a sensation. And then, with no explanation, after withdrawing from the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship (after posting a first-round 74) he just vanished into obscurity. End of chapter one.  

India has its share of similar stories. Circa 1992. At the All-India Championship held at the Royal Calcutta Golf Club, 10-year-old Shivin Kwatra took top honours in the sub-junior (15 years and under) category. Kwatra became the youngest player in the country to hold a national title and was the 10th ranked sub-junior player in the world. The Delhi-based golfer had that ‘X-factor,’ that differentiates good players from the truly gifted. Over the next few years Kwatra continued to astonish peers and pros alike with his exceptional ball striking and scoring abilities. Ask anyone who’s followed golf in India since the 1990s and Kwatra’s name is likely to be the first when it comes to sheer talent and promise. When he turned 17, Kwatra got a golf scholarship at the University of Virginia and left for further studies. He then decided, much to everyone’s astonishment (and dismay of some), to not pursue golf as a career.  

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Then, there’s Ashok Kumar. Watching the Delhi pro hit balls on the range is an astonishing experience. The sheer quality of Kumar’s ball striking is world-class, and the natural ease with which he appears to swing is exceptional. From the time he won the Order of Merit on India’s professional circuit in 2004-05, and then again in 2007, and finally in 2010—when he won five of the eight events he participated in—Kumar was considered one of India’s brightest international prospects, expected to make the transition to Asia and Europe. Kumar played a few events on the Asian Tour—and did reasonably well on a few that were played in India – but never quite made it as an international playing professional.  

Kim’s story, or Kwatra and Kumar’s are not those of unfulfilled promise. Kwatra, by all accounts, has done very well for himself in the corporate world and is a multiple winner of his club championship in New York. Kumar seems perfectly content staying close to home. The 40-year-old's last win—his 13th overall—came in 2016 and he continues to ply his trade on the PGTI.  

Look at it how you will. The expectations that come with being a prodigy can be overpowering and the need for constant public validation can take a toll. Some believe that if you are superlatively talented then you have a moral imperative to deliver—to your fans, and to yourself. To leave the way Kim did—without as much as a word—is unheard of in this day and age. When he left, Kim was in the middle of the most challenging phase of his career. His best finish in the 2012 season was a tied-42 at the Honda Classic. He had been plagued by injuries that led to four missed cuts, two withdrawals and a disqualification that year. Still, it didn’t qualify as a situation to warrant such an extreme decision.  

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The ‘pursuit of greatness,’ is an enduring theme in human history. John Keats spent his short life obsessed with his ambition of writing ‘epic poems –’ the yardstick he considered imperative for being considered highly among the ranks of the Romantic poets. As he lay dying of tuberculosis at the age of 25, Keats rued that he hadn’t done enough and that his words would fade into oblivion. His final act was to write a bitter epitaph for his own tombstone. ‘Here lies one whose name was writ in water,’ reads the lament, etched in stone as indelibly as Keat’s lasting body of work that has endured through the centuries. 

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Anthony Kim has not built a hall-of-fame golfing career that most expected him capable of achieving. And yet, despite a short stint in the sun more than a decade back, he continues to be one of the most enigmatic figures in golf. Kim’s peers and golf commentators wistfully recount anecdotes about his otherworldly golfing abilities, his fearlessness on the course, and shots he pulled off. The underlying emotion behind these narratives is one of regret and loss.  

It’s simplistic—and convenient—to retroactively brand Kim’s story, or those of Kwatra and Kumar, as stories of unfulfillment. We don’t know the reasons why Kim might return to professional golf. And we may never know what he’s been doing for the past 12 years. But it’s fair to conjecture that he wasn’t as obsessed with notions of creating a golfing legacy as everyone else wanted him to be. He left when he wanted to, to live like he wanted to live, and now he’s decided to return. On his own terms. Just like the Anthony Kim of old.

Meraj Shah is a Delhi-based writer, golfer and television producer.

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