The word “swashbuckler” has fallen out of favor. It’s considered olde English now, like “damsel” or “jitterbug.” But it is a word from another era that is perfect for Sei Young Kim, our newest major champion, who broke through at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship with a record-setting 266, 14-under par, and five shots clear of second-place finisher Inbee Park.
Kim didn’t shoot that number at some resort course with a Marriott behind the first tee. It was on Aronimink Golf Club, one of the great Donald Ross gems in the country. Not only did Kim run away with this one, she equaled the low round of the tournament on Sunday and came within a whisker (a birdie putt at the last that nicked the high edge) of shooting a course-record 62. But the scores and the margin of victory don’t, alone, make Kim a swashbuckler. That comes from the throwback nature of her game.
First a little background. Kim burst onto the scene five years ago with a win right out of the gate in the Bahamas, followed by two more rookie-year victories. One in Hawaii where she chipped in on the 72nd hole to force a playoff with Inbee Park and then holed out an 8-iron from the fairway for eagle. And another in China by a single shot.
She won twice more in her second year on tour, the second of those coming in another playoff. She won a match-play event in 2017, defeating then No. 1 in the world Ariya Jutanugarn in the final, 1 up. Her lone victory in 2018 was a blowout, when she set the all-time LPGA Tour scoring record of 31-under par. Her eighth win was in another playoff (she’s 4-0 in extra holes).
Kim’s ninth victory was by two shots ahead of Lexi Thompson. And her 10th win was for the largest single-day payout in women’s golf, $1.5 million at the CME Group Tour Championship, which Kim captured by rolling in a downhill 25-footer for birdie on the last hole.
Her golf swing, largely homemade, harkens back to an era of knit headcovers and stovepipe Amana hats. ... High hands, a shut face, the club across the line at the top, and a power drive through impact that generates serious speed and height on all her shots.
If that’s not swashbuckling, the word has no meaning, old or new.
But there’s more. Her golf swing, largely homemade, harkens back to an era of knit headcovers and stovepipe Amana hats. You’d put her move up against John Mahaffey’s any day. High hands, a shut face, the club across the line at the top, and a power drive through impact that generates serious speed and height on all her shots are just a few of the bygone elements of her game.
It was appropriate that Gary Player, who won the 1962 PGA Championship at Aronimink, was on site again this week. Kim would have fit in with the Big Three and scores of others from that era. Like Tom Watson, her most lofted club is a 56-degree wedge, four degrees less than most of her peers. And she uses that club with the skill of a surgeon. She got up and down for par on the seventh, for example, after her approach had spun off one of Ross’ false fronts and ended up 30 yards away and 10 feet below the hole. A nice old-school nip with that wedge and Kim had a relative tap-in for par.
She did it again on the par-5 16th. After a rare missed fairway, she hit a fairway wood (yes, she calls them “woods”) flag-high but left. It would have been a delicate shot with a 60-degree. A 56-degree required the kind of artistry that can’t be taught and is rarely tried anymore. Kim pulled it off perfectly, leaving herself a 4-footer for another birdie.
That was her 22nd birdie of the week. The one she made 10 minutes later at 17 made it 23.
“Looking back, recalling (my past wins), I think I was really playing aggressively,” Kim said afterward. “But this week I tried to stay composed and focus on my game, not worrying about other factors. I think that helped overall.”
There wasn’t a flag she wouldn’t attack at Aronimink. Many times, her caddie, Paul Fusco, tried to nudge her toward the center of the greens, but she was confident that she could work the ball toward the hole from any direction – another way her game is retro. Two generations ago, the biggest compliment you could pay players was to say they could work the ball. Almost no one younger than 30 knows what that means. But Kim, at age 27 and with English as a second language, gets it.
She doesn’t carry a 1-iron but that might be her only nod to modernity. She even plays fast, finishing putts inside 2 feet and getting all her yardages before it’s her turn, which is darn near revolutionary in today’s game.
There are some things, however, that remain the same throughout the generations.
“I’m not going to lie, I was really nervous last night,” Kim said of sleeping on a two-shot lead with a slew of major champions nipping at her heels. “But I really tried to simplify my game because this is a tough course. That worked out pretty well.”