GOLF WITHOUT Tiger Woods doesn't look quite so bleak now that Anthony Kim has caught fire. Oh, sure, there were moments last week when it looked as if the AT&T National in Bethesda, Md., would pack about as much firepower as a Fourth of July sparkler. Stars like Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh skipped the event. Weekend attendance at Congressional Country Club fell by 22,000 from last year. Worst of all, the tournament host called in sick. (That would be Woods, who was recovering from left-knee surgery at his Florida manse.)
AK to the rescue! Wearing a pink shirt and a jeweled belt buckle the size of a banquet tray, the 23-year-old Kim came from three strokes behind on Sunday to breeze to a two-shot victory over Fredrik Jacobson. In doing so, Kim validated his five-stroke win at April's Wachovia Classic and calmed the Chicken Littles who have been running around screaming, "The season is over!" ever since Tiger went under the knife.
"Anytime there's a younger guy who plays well, there's always a little buzz," Kim said afterward. "People are looking and hoping to find the guy who's going to challenge Tiger."
That shouldn't be too hard—not while Woods is on crutches, anyway. But some golf pundits say that the winners of the upcoming British Open and PGA Championship should go into the record book with asterisks next to their names (* Tiger Woods Not in Field). Tour veteran Paul Goydos was asked to comment last week, and he had a glib rejoinder: "Then we need to put an asterisk next to all 18 of Jack's majors, because Tiger didn't play in any of those."
It's possible, of course, that the winner of next week's Open Championship got his asterisk in gear at Congressional. Jacobson qualified for the British as the top player among the top five and ties at the AT&T. Rocco Mediate, the 45-year-old backslapper who gained millions of fans by taking Woods to a 19th playoff hole at the U.S. Open, qualified by finishing second to Kenny Perry on a special British Open money list of bewildering complexity. "Hopefully I'll be at the British," a grinning Mediate said after finishing 18th. "I want to play one of those major things again."
Kim, it has to be said, has played in only three majors, his best finish is a 20th at the 2007 U.S. Open. But when you ask Tour players which young golfer has the game and the confidence to win a major, they invariably point to the former Oklahoma star. "Awesome," said Dean Wilson, who tied for third at Congressional. "For a guy who hits it that far [301.0 average, eighth on Tour], he really hits it straight." Added Jacobson, "He has good flight on his long irons as well. So he's a guy who can play really well on tough courses."
So, could Anthony Kim be ... the guy?
"I'd like to think I could work my way into that position," a smiling Kim said after Sunday's victory, "but right now I still have a ways to go."
He's right. From anywhere in the States it's an overnight flight to Manchester and a one-hour drive to Royal Birkdale.