Tiger Woods may be out of commission for the foreseeable future, but it’d be a mistake to think his presence wasn’t indirectly felt at closing time of The Players Championship.

 

More than anything else, it was Woods’ ruthless force of domination that spawned a generation of young, fearless players. And that’s exactly what transpired Sunday with the out-of-nowhere triumph by 21-year-old Si Woo Kim at The Players Championship.


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There was no indication coming into The Players that Kim would be a factor. He’s been plagued with back problems all season, forcing him to withdraw from four tournaments and also miss seven cuts. But the steely-nerved South Korean held up in the biggest pressure moment of his career.

“I feel like I’m still dreaming,” Kim said, through an interpreter, about becoming the youngest Players champion and the first player from Asia to win twice on the PGA Tour before age 22.

But it didn’t feel like any kind of fluke as Kim masterfully negotiated the diabolical Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass, shooting a bogey-free 69 to win by three shots.

Kim seized the lead for the first time on the seventh hole by draining a 24-foot downhill birdie putt and never let anybody take it away. Not only did Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen, Lucas Glover or third round co-leaders Kyle Stanley and J.B. Holmes never catch Kim, all of them except Poulter struggled to stay within reasonable striking distance.

Kim refused to open any door, going 10-for-10 on scrambling pars, including two from bunkers at holes No. 10 and 11. He kept all would-be contenders safely in his rear-view mirror. If that’s not vintage Tiger, what is?

“When [Kim] gets in the hunt, he’s just fearless,” said Mark Carens, his caddie the past two years. “He loves it. That’s when he was most comfortable, when he saw that he was leading [The Players].”

Kim has done it a little bit differently than other 20-somethings – Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy, Jason Day – bursting on to the world stage. He’s endured more rough patches along the way. He had to get through Tour qualifying school three times, the youngest (17 years, 5 months, 6 days) in his first go-around in 2012.

Even when Kim solicited the help of Tiger’s ex-coach, Sean Foley, in February, it’s not like it produced instantaneous results. In 12 tournaments before The Players, his best finish was a tie for 22nd at the Texas Open and he shot only three rounds in the 60s, which he matched in four days on the Stadium Course.

But Kim’s confidence elevated to a different level after his third-round 68, putting him in the mix with a half-dozen other players and making him feel like his game was good enough to hold up.

“I was a little nervous before I played the final round,” Kim said. “However, I really could feel that my shot was feeling good. I could just really be myself. That’s why I could do well.”

While Kim was ripping off par after par on the back nine, with the critical up-and-down being from a collection area at No. 14, everybody else stumbled around him at some point. Oosthuizen, who finished tied for second at 7 under, sensed his opportunity slipping away with consecutive bogeys at 13 and 14 because Kim kept recovering from everywhere around the greens.

“If you are on your game and playing well, that’s the things you do,” said Oosthuizen. “You up-and-down when you’re in trouble, you just don’t give shots away. If you can do that around this golf course, I mean you can outscore everyone.

“And [Kim] played like someone that was doing it for five or six years, like it was just another round of golf. It just shows you how good a player he is and how cool and calm he is. And never once did he look flustered at all.”

Poulter, who tied Oosthuizen for second, trailed by two shots for almost the entire back nine. The 41-year-old Englishman went 39 consecutive holes without a bogey until he missed a 6-footer at No. 12, which ended the last real threat to catch Kim.

From the time Kim hit driver out of the rough at No. 14 on Saturday to salvage a par, Poulter could feel this kid 20 years his junior was going to be tough to deal with.

“I got close there on 11 once I made birdie, and obviously I wanted to try and put a little bit more pressure on, but it was tough to get it close [to the hole],” Poulter said. “You have to take your hat off [to Kim]. You have to respect some good golf, and that’s exactly what he’s done.”

Kim followed in the footsteps of South Korean K.J. Choi, who won the 2011 Players Championship and was all too happy to provide his countryman some tips about his experience.

“While I was practicing with [Choi], he taught me about the course at the Stadium,” said Kim. “That kind of advice actually helped me a lot.”

But Choi needed a David Toms three-putt on the first playoff hole to raise his Waterford crystal. Not Kim. Once he gained an upper hand on the field, the seventh international Players champion in the last 10 years shut the door for good.

Just like Tiger in his prime.

Gene.frenette@jacksonville.com: (904) 359-4540