Kim takes command with first round lead
COLUMBUS, Ohio – South Korea’s Whee Kim narrowly missed out on retaining his PGA TOUR card last month, and wound up turning to the season-ending Web.com Tour Finals in order to make a return trip to golf’s biggest stage for the 2016-17 season. An opening 65 on Thursday at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship put Kim atop the leaderboard at Ohio State University Golf Club’s Scarlet Course, and in good position with 54 holes to go in the year’s penultimate event.
Kim opened his week in the day’s morning wave with a birdie on the par-4 third and a bogey on the par-3 fifth to sit at even par early in the day.
From there, the 24-year-old birdied Nos. 7 and 8 to turn in 2-under 34 before venturing to the club’s closing nine for a flurry of red numbers.
“I missed a lot of putts to start, but I hit really good iron shots,” said Kim after his round. “I made a lot of good opportunities to make a lot of birdies today.”
Birdies on 10, 12 and 13 vaulted Kim to 5-under-par for his round as the somewhat soft conditions on Thursday allowed for a plethora of low numbers on a course not known for yielding them.
At the short par-4 16th, he added yet another birdie to move to 6-under on the day, where he eventually finished after closing pars on 17 and 18 left him with a first-round 65 and the event’s day one lead.
“I think the greens are softer than I expected. The last few years it was real firm and then fast,” Kim said. “The speed is fast here, but they’re a little softer, so it’s playing much easier, especially when you hit a short iron in or a wedge.”
Kim spent 2013 and 2014 on the Web.com Tour, posting a combined five top-10 finishes and a 16th-place finish in the 2014 Web.com Tour Finals to secure his PGA TOUR card for the 2014-15 season. During that run to the TOUR, he posted a T3 finish at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship, where weekend rounds of 67-69 left him one shot shy of a playoff between Justin Thomas and Richard Sterne, which Thomas went on to win.
Once on the PGA TOUR, Kim posted two top-10 finishes – including a season-best T3 at the Barbasol Championship – to finish No. 123 on the PGA TOUR money list, which enabled him to keep his card for the 2015-16 season via the TOUR’s top-125 money list exemption.
This past season, however, he missed seven cuts in his first 11 starts before notching a T3 at the John Deere Classic in August to finish the year at No. 127 in the FedExCup.
Part of the slow start was attributed to a stint in the Korean military from December 1-31, which left him with some catching up to do at the start of 2016 while trying to compete against PGA TOUR players who spent the brief offseason practicing nonstop.
“I think it was tough for me because these guys are so good and if I miss a few shots it’s going to be no chance,” said Kim, who avoided the standard 22-month military commitment via his gold medal at the 2010 Asian Games. “So, a lot of practice and then almost the end of the season I played pretty good, and then I think I (finally) played my game. So, for now it’s pretty good.”
The experience, however, was a good one for Kim, who is one of a handful of recent Korean golf stars who had to serve in the military at an inopportune time.
“It was a good experience, that kind of military service,” he said. “It was a different kind of experience from what I’ve done for a long time. It was fun.”
Two players are tied for second at 5-under-par, including Kevin Tway, the son of 1986 PGA Championship winner Bob Tway.
“I got off to kind of a rough start, 2-over through two, but after that, I made like eight birdies in the next 14 or 15 holes, which is nice out here,” said Tway, whose father followed him for the round. “I started getting the ball in the fairway a little bit more, which makes it a little bit easier to attack the hole.”
Tway’s Web.com Tour career began in in 2013, where a win at the Albertsons Boise Open presented by Kraft Nabisco helped deliver a 2013-14 PGA TOUR card, thanks to a fifth-place finish on the Regular Season money list.
The former Oklahoma State star lost his card following his rookie year, and has since played full-time on the Web.com Tour, narrowly missing out on returning to the PGA TOUR after 28th- and 27th-place finishes on the money list in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
Under the watchful eye of his father, who tallied eight wins during a standout PGA TOUR career, Tway spent the early part of the week working on his swing with just two events left in the Web.com Tour Finals.
“Sometimes I get caught (having), I don’t know, almost too (many) complicated swing thoughts, so just a real simple swing thought of keeping my head still, which has kind of been nice with my irons and I had the ball going a little straighter, which is nice,” he said.
Matching Tway with a 66 of his own was Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who recorded the low round of the afternoon wave on Thursday.
Fernandez-Castano, 35, has seven career wins on the European Tour, where he is also an impressive 4-2 in playoffs – defeating the likes of Henrik Stenson (BMW Asian Open) and Lee Westwood (British Masters). He has competed in all four major championships, posting a career-best T10 at the 2013 U.S. Open.
The Madrid native used a T3 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2013 to spark a two-and-a-half-year stint on the PGA TOUR, where he notched seven additional top-25 finishes. He wound up in the Web.com Tour Finals last fall, posting three of four made cuts. A T58 finish at the Tour’s annual Qualifying Tournament gave Fernandez-Castano conditional status on Tour this year, where he has recorded two top-10 finishes, including a T9 last week in Boise.
The T9 paired with a T16 at the DAP Championship earlier this month to give Fernandez-Castano $41,500 in Web.com Tour Finals earnings, which has him eighth on the Finals money list, and secure for a return to the PGA TOUR in 2016-17.