HOUSTON—In a year in which the COVID-19 pandemic dominated headlines, it was perhaps fitting that in the final major championship of 2020 another one would be written by a player wearing a mask all week, even as she played, at the U.S. Women’s Open.
“Every time I practice, I usually wear a mask, so I’m kind of used to it,” A Lim Kim said. “I’m OK to get positive tests for COVID-19 but I don’t want to affect other people, players, a caddie that’s playing within the group, so that’s the reason I wear the mask throughout the round.”
Her play down the stretch on a frigid Monday at Champions Golf Club, in the first U.S. Women’s Open played in December, made a statement all its own.
Trailing by five strokes at the start of the day, the 25-year-old South Korean birdied each of her final three holes to match the low round of the week, a four-under 67, to take the clubhouse lead at three-under 281. Then she waited to see if anyone could catch her.
Kim held on to win by one stroke over World No. 1 Jin Young Ko (68) and Amy Olson (72), giving her the title in her first career start in a major and her first tournament played in the United States. She also tied the record for the largest comeback in tournament history.
“Still can’t really soak in that I’m the champion, but it feels different winning the tournament here,” Kim, who plays mostly on the LPGA of Korea, said through an interpreter. “Back in Korea, the style and the environment is different. But I’m really glad—and through COVID-19 we had a lot of difficulties—but glad we had the U.S. Women’s Open held in Houston. It was a great win.”
And one that few likely saw coming.
Kim came into the week ranked 94th in the Rolex World Golf Rankings and not since Birdie Kim won in 2005 at Cherry Hills has there been such a surprise winner.
But A Lim Kim has also enjoyed plenty of success in South Korea, where she learned the game from her father and was inspired by watching Annika Sorenstam on television.
On the KLPGA, Kim won the 2018 Se Ri Pak Invitational, where she rallied from three back in the final round to defeat Jeongeun Lee6, who would go on to win last year’s U.S. Women’s Open. And at the OrangeLife Champions Trophy—a match-play event between KLPGA and LPGA members—she beat Danielle Kang and So Yeon Ryu in singles the last two years.
Just how good is the golf on that circuit?
“I know this course is tough, but the KLPGA [courses] are also tough,” said Ko, who shot a final-round 68 on Monday. “[The players there] are getting better and better. They have to.”
That was evident down the stretch on Monday as Kim stuck each of her final three approach shots close to set up the clinching birdies—4 feet on 16, 18 inches on 17 and 7 feet on 18. She is the first Women’s U.S. Open champion to birdie the last hole to win since Eun-Hee Ji in 2009 at Saucon Valley.
Kim also is the latest in a long line of Koreans to have success in major championships, particularly at the U.S. Women’s Open. In the last 13 editions of the tournament, Koreans have won nine of them.
As for how Kim will celebrate the victory? She smiled before her and her interpreter provided a telling answer.
“I really miss Korean food right now, so I’ll probably have good Korean food with my family,” she said.
Her interpreter then added a dose of reality: “We’ve got to do 14 days of quarantine when we go back to Korea, so it’ll be family gathering time for those two weeks, so looking forward to it.”