By RICK BROWN, John Deere Classic Correspondent
When Michael Kim added to his five-shot lead with birdies on the first three holes Sunday, he sucked the suspense out of the John Deere Classic.
At least until he reached the 18th green.
There, Michael was surprised to find his parents, Sun and Yun, and his older brother, Richard, were there in person to witness his first PGA Tour victory. And a record-smashing victory it was.
“I teared up a little bit on the green when I saw them,” Michael said. “I really tried to two-putt the last green and not make a bogey.”
Kim played the final 29 holes without a bogey, shot a closing 66 and smashed a pair of records. His winning score of 27-under-par 257 was one record. It erased Steve Stricker’s mark of 256 set in 2010. And Kim’s eight-shot margin of victory was another record. David Frost had the old mark, a seven-shot victory in 1993 at Oakwood Country Club.
Kim lists sleeping as one of his hobbies on his PGA Tour biography. But he had trouble sleeping on the lead. Kim woke up for the first time at 4:30 a.m., eight hours before his tee time. He was so frantic he searched the internet for ways to slow down his heart rate.
His family landed in Chicago at 4:30 a.m. after taking the red-eye from San Diego. Then they drove to the Quad Cities, took a short nap at a hotel and
headed for the course. They stayed in the TPC Deere Run clubhouse while Michael played his way into the winner’s circle.
“My parents didn’t want to miss the first one,” Richard said.
Richard, who lives in Seoul, South Korea, just happened to be in San Diego visiting his parents for a few weeks.
“Great timing,” Richard said. “It’s incredible I was here to see this happen.”
One of the things that Michael read several times when he couldn’t sleep was a text message he had received Saturday night from former Deere champion Zach Johnson.
“He told me, “Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” Kim said. “Nothing crazy. When I couldn’t sleep, I kept going back to his message…whatever happens, happens. Score doesn’t matter. Coming from a guy like that, it meant a lot.”
Johnson, who is also on the Deere tournament board, invited Kim to play in his
Zach Johnson Foundation Classic last Monday in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“He’s had some struggles and shouldn’t, because he’s really, really, really good,” Johnson said. “And a great kid.”
Kim’s lowest score entering play Thursday had been a pair of 64s in 254 career rounds. He had a 63 and a pair of 64s in the first three rounds at TPC Deere Run. He missed 14 cuts in his first 22 tournaments this season, including his last three events. Kim was ranked 473rd in the world and 174th on the PGA Tour money list with earnings of $281,986 coming to the Deere.
“He should be very consistent,” Johnson said. “He shouldn’t miss many cuts. He should be in contention numerous times because his putting stroke is great and his golf swing is tremendous.”
Kim’s best career showing coming into this week had been a third-place finish at the 2017 Safeway Open. His biggest career check had been $288,000. Kim collected a first-place check for $1,044,000 on the 18th green Sunday.
The victory was also some personal validation for Kim. He was a member of the high school Class of 2011, which included Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger and Xander Schauffele.
Kim was the college player of the year at California-Berkeley, winning both the Jack Nicklaus Award and the Haskins Award in 2013. That was the same year he was low amateur at the U.S. Open at Merion, tying for 17th. He turned pro later that year.
Spieth also won his first PGA Tour event at the John Deere in 2013 as a 19-year-old. He added a second Deere title in 2015, and now has 11 victories including three majors. Thomas has won eight times, including a major. Schauffele’s three victories include the 2017 Tour Championship. Berger has two victories.
“I played against them in college,” Kim said. “I beat a lot of them in college.”
Kim’s pro career has been relatively smooth, but not up to the standards of some of his classmates.
“When you compare it to some of the guys from that 2011 class - Jordan, Justin, Berger, Xander - you can’t help but feel you’re being left behind,” Kim said. “It was just motivation more than anything. Without them doing so well, I might not be holding this trophy right now.”
Kim, who led by as many as nine shots Sunday, became the 22nd player to collect his first PGA Tour victory at the John Deere Classic.
Ten of the last 14 Deeres were decided by one shot or in a playoff. The largest margin of victory since the tournament moved to TPC Deere Run in 2000 was four shots, by Vijay Singh in 2003 and J.P. Hayes in 2002.
Kim’s blowout matched the largest margin of victory on the tour this season. Francesco Molinari, who tied for second Sunday with Joel Dahman, Sam Ryder and Bronson Burgoon, won the Quicken Loans by eight shots two weeks ago. And Dustin Johnson won the Sentry Tournament of Champions by eight shots in January.
But Kim, with 30 birdies and just three bogeys on his card, blew tradition out of the water.
“Winning is one thing,” Johnson said. “But winning like that is another story. Everybody’s so good out here.”
Kim’s PGA Tour bio also lists three things on his bucket list: Playing in the Masters, playing a round with Tiger Woods and attending either an NBA Finals or the Super Bowl. Sunday’s victory got him in the Masters.
“I’m glad I got to check one off,” Kim said.
The victory also got Kim into this week’s British Open at Carnoustie. He took advantage of the non-stop jet service the Deere provides to its players who are eligible for the major.
Kim actually got four seats on the plane. His parents and brother joined him.