[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Record-breaking Kim Sei-young is much more than her signature red pants
Over the next few weeks, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their starts and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field. This week’s interview is with professional golfer Kim Sei-young.
Most golf fans associate world No. 6 Kim Sei-young with the signature red pants she wears on the final days of tournaments as well as her dramatic victories.
She's concerned that her fashion choices and exciting playing style mean people don't even remember her name.
Born on Jan. 21, 1993, Kim was about 9 years old when she first stepped foot in a golf club. Before she started playing, Kim already had athletic experience as her father ran a taekwondo studio. Taekwondo has always been around her, and Kim is a skilled taekwondo practitioner. Kim also credits her father for introducing her to golf.
“My dad really liked sports,” Kim says. “He operated a taekwondo studio and since he liked sports, he went to the golf course often. So I followed him along, too. That’s how I started playing, but the moment I hit a shot it felt different. There was this weird feeling that just touched my heart immediately.”
It’s a feeling hard to describe in words, but Kim says that right at that moment, she felt that golf was the path that she should pursue. The young Kim also played badminton and football, but she says that she never imagined her future playing anything but golf.
Years later the now 27-year-old says that although the initial charm of the sport has changed, she’s trying her best to remember that feeling that first sparked her interest.
“I guess, as I keep on achieving my goals, it gets harder to remember,” Kim says. “So I really try to keep that ‘feeling’ that I felt in the very beginning as much as possible. I really try hard to keep that attitude and the mindset from that time, all the time.”
Now when she takes to the golf course, everyone refers to her as a pro. When she first heard the title “pro,” she says that it felt weird. Although she's gotten used to it now, she says she'd rather people just call her by her name.
“[When I first heard it,] It was really weird,” Kim says. “I thought I was just a little girl playing golf but when older people started calling me a pro, I wondered what it was. As I get older, I feel different kinds of emotions. Now it feels more natural. I like to be called a pro but I think I like it better when I just get called by my name, Kim Sei-young.”
Start of her outfit
On the final day of any tournament Kim competes in, whether she’s leading or not, she has her own tradition: wearing red pants.
Red pants have become accepted as her signature look, but few know when she started this tradition, or why. Kim says that the specific wardrobe choice has now become more of a jinx but it began back when she was an amateur and picked up her first win.
“I think it was about 16 years old when I picked up my first win,” Kim says. “At the time, I really wanted to win and also wanted to create my own ritual. Tiger Woods has his trade mark of wearing a red shirt on the last day. I decided to do that too, so to change it up a little bit, I went with the pants. That’s how it started."
To the pros
Kim was already a member of the Korean national women’s golf team when she turned pro in 2010.
“I was on the national team in high school and turned pro,” Kim says. “So I obviously thought that I would play well. That’s why I decided to turn pro. I pictured myself winning tournaments and becoming a star player many times a day. But after I turned pro, I didn’t play well for about four years. I played badly.”
Kim turned pro in 2010, where she started from the Dream Tour and then joined the KLPGA Tour in 2010. Despite her expectation of dominating the tour, it wasn’t until April 2013, at the Lotte Mart Ladies Open, that Kim finally picked up her first win as a pro.
She says that this was the biggest slump in her career but at the same time, she thinks that those four years allowed her to become more mature.
“Those four years could be considered as the peak for athletes,” Kim says. “But when I think about those four years, I think it allowed me to play better in the long run? I become more mature and, through that process, I think it allowed me to be stronger now.”
More than her first win as a pro, what really left an impression was her dramatic victory. Her first win was decided on the very last hole on the last day of the tournament by making an eagle. She then added two more wins, totaling three for the 2013 season. By adding two more wins in the 2014 season, Kim has won five tournaments on the LPGA of Korea Tour.
Kim then made the decision to take her career to the bigger stage, the LPGA Tour. By finishing tied for ninth at the 2014 LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament, she started competing in the United States as a rookie in 2015. But this time, she’s made sure not to waste her rookie season like she did on the KLPGA Tour.
Although Kim missed the cut in the season opener, in her second tournament as the 2015 LPGA Tour’s rookie, she picked up her first win. It was a dramatic victory once again, as she beat Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand and Yoo Sun-young of Korea in a sudden-death playoff.
But what really made her a star and what she says remains one of the memorable tournaments of her career is the 2015 LPGA Lotte Championship. She made a chip-in for par on the 18th hole to extend the tournament to another sudden-death playoff against Park In-bee.
Then in the first playoff hole, Kim scored an eagle by hitting her second shot right into the hole for another dramatic victory. By picking up another victory in November that season at Blue Bay LPGA, she was named the LPGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year.
This was quite an achievement for Kim as notable KLPGA Tour players like Kim Hyo-joo and Jang Ha-na also joined the LPGA Tour that season.
Since then, Kim managed to pick up at least a win or two every season, but due to her inconsistency, her name tends to be forgotten by some of the fans. At times, her inconsistency and highs and lows have been criticized.
“Well, when I play well, I play really well but when I play bad, I play really bad,” Kim says. “I think that’s like my style. I tried to fix it but by doing so, that kind of got rid of my strength. So I decided to just push for what I’m good at, even if I make a mistake.”
Difficulty and nerves
The mental aspect of golf is probably one of the toughest parts of the game as players are required to keep their scores low while playing a lengthy 18 holes.
Kim says she finds it tough to concentrate for a long period of time and when it comes to her mental game, she still struggles. However, she’s figured out her own way of counting the long journey of playing through the 18 holes throughout the week.
“For me, when I count [the holes], I feel like the time goes by slower,” Kim says. “Also, I get different thoughts like how to play the remaining holes and so on. So I just push myself hole by hole, continuously telling myself that each hole is the first hole.”
By now, she’s competed in hundreds of tournaments but Kim says that she still gets nervous when her name is called and she tees up on the first hole.
“I get really nervous,” Kim says. “I still feel nervous and if I’m not, then I would think that my passion for a tournament may have died down a little. But since I want to play well all the time, I guess some kind of nerves always comes along.”
But it’s not only on the first hole that she gets nervous. Kim says she gets even more nervous for her winning putt, called the champions putt. Whether it’s short or long, the pressure still gets to her.
“If the camera zoomed in it would probably see my hands shaking," Kim says, "That’s how most of the players putt. But they all try really hard to not show it. I get really nervous but I really try not to show it.”
When golf returned to the Olympics in 2016, for the first time since 1904, Kim was one of the four members to represent Team Korea.
The quotas were decided based on the Rolex Women’s World Golf Rankings. The top 15 golfers in the world according to the rankings qualified to compete at the Summer Olympic Games. However, since Korean golfers dominated the LPGA Tour, only a maximum of four golfers per country in the top 15 in the ranking earned their spots at Rio de Janeiro.
As Kim was ranked No. 5 in the world ranking, she was given the chance to compete.
“My biggest goal was to win a gold medal,” Kim says looking back at the time. “But it was my first time and since I wasn’t used to that kind of tournament, I think I was being very greedy because you don’t get the chance very often. Since it’s only held once every four years, I felt under pressure. So I had some regrets, and based on that experience I’ve been preparing for four years but due to this unexpected scenario, it has been postponed and I started to think that I should prepare more for another year.”
Kim ended up finishing tied for 25th at the 2016 Olympics. Looking back at that time, Kim says that it felt like a completely different tournament compared to others.
“It was really different and I got goosebumps,” Kim says. “There were a lot of media following us and all that.”
While Kim might be best remembered for her signature red pants, the history books certainly won't forget her name.
When Kim picked up her 10th and latest victory at the 2019 season finale, at the CME Group Tour Championship, she became only the fourth Korean golfer to pick up at least 10 wins on the LPGA Tour. Before Kim, Pak Se-ri, Park In-bee and Shin Ji-yai managed the feat.
Of her 10 wins, four of them were won from sudden-death playoff, an undefeated playoff record for Kim so far.
Aside from her personal record and a record among Korean golfers, she also holds a record in the world of golf. When Kim picked up a win at the 2018 Thornberry Creek LPGA Classic, she finished the tournament at 31-under par, 257, which is the lowest 72-hole score in LPGA Tour history.
Kim also held the previous record, but was tied with legendary golfer Annika Sorenstam of Sweden, at 27 under-par
As the LPGA Tour has not yet announced the exact date that the 2019 season will restart due to the coronavirus outbreak, Kim is currently continuing her season on the KLPGA Tour, which kicked off again with the 42nd KLPGA Championship from May 14 to May 17.
Thanks to the KLPGA Tour’s huge number of fans, the golf courses used to be packed with hundreds in the gallery taking photos and videos of their favorite players. But like the KBO and the K League, the KLPGA is also playing tournaments at empty golf courses.
“Since gallery [fans] really love KLPGA tournaments, when I played in Korea, it was really fun,” Kim says. “But the silence was very unfamiliar. Since there was no gallery, we played quicker but I think it’s more meaningful and fun to play in front of the gallery.”
She may not be able to see the fans out on the course anytime soon but until she goes back to the United States, Kim says she plans to repay the fans for all the love she has received throughout her career.
“While I wait for the [LPGA Tour] United States to restart, I think I’ll get some opportunities to meet the Korean fans in Korea,” Kim says. “So if I can, I want to play well and repay them for all the love I received.”
Kim will continue her season on the KLPGA Tour by competing at the 8th E1 Charity Open at South Springs Country Club in Icheon, Gyeonggi, starting from May 28 to 31.
While Kim is focusing on her outing on the KLPGA Tour for now, she says her long term goal is to continue to make her mark in the history books and get her name onto the LPGA Tour’s Hall of Fame.
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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