WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA | She has been the darling of amateur golf, a girl with a giant smile and big heart, wide-eyed and happy everywhere she’s been. Gina Kim first popped into the public consciousness in 2019 when, as a freshman at Duke, she led the Blue Devils to their seventh national championship. A relatively unknown kid with braces on her teeth, Kim finished T-10 in stroke play at The Blessings in Arkansas that year and then upset Albane Valenzuela in the quarterfinals and Bianca Pagdanganan in the semis. Both those matches went to the final hole where Valenzuela and Pagdanganan were expected to shine against the wee freshman. It didn’t turn out that way.
A week later, Kim was the low amateur in the U.S. Women’s Open at Country Club of Charleston after leading the event early in the week. Again, she was a fan darling, humble and composed, without a hint of pretense. She was naive and knew it. “Just precious,” one of the Charlestonians said of her at the time.
After that, Kim became an amateur stalwart, reaching as high as No.8 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking and playing on the victorious 2021 U.S. Curtis Cup team.
Now, she’s a novice again. Kim made her professional debut at the Florida’s Natural Classic. And, just as before, she was a delightful innocent.
“I had a great pro-am group,” Kim said before the opening round at Country Club of Winter Haven. She played with Mike Nichols, the Chief Business Officer of the Epson Tour, Kevin Garton, the Director of Corporate Communications of Epson USA, and Beth Ann Nichols, a president of the Golf Writers Association of America and a champion of the women’s game. “Beth Ann was a lot of fun. Kevin and Mike were great. It was just a good group.”
When her caddie, Ben Sorrells, said, “Enjoy those while you can,” Kim said, “What do you mean? They aren’t all that way?”
“No,” Sorrells and this author said in unison.
Sorrells is a familiar presence on Kim’s bag. They met when she played in the 2019 Augusta National Women’s Amateur. He was a club caddie at The National and has had bags on the Korn Ferry and PGA Tour, including, most recently, Tommy Gainey. But he loves Gina and hopes to make this job permanent. “She’s such a good kid,” Sorrells said. “She’s got talent and heart and is the perfect personality for out here. Just give her some starts and some time. She will be there. No doubt.”
Kim learned a lot in her opening week. As she was warming up before her last round, she reached over to pick up a ball to hit a driver, then stopped herself and turned to Sorrells, who had one cleaned and ready to toss. “I almost did it again,” Kim said with a big smile.
She also needs to get accustomed to the pacing of professional golf. By Sunday afternoon, she had played 102 holes in six days and practiced after every round. She bogeyed her last two holes to finish the week at 2-over par and in a tie for 28th, nothing to write home about but a good learning experience.
“It was a little shaky,” Kim admitted. “The fact that I made a cut and that I’m going home with a lot of good experience is a positive. I got some reps in. I’m feeling good about my game right now. It’s all about finding a good routine and not tiring myself out at the very end. I really started feeling it those last few holes and I realized that I probably should have paced myself a little better this week. Hopefully, that’s a good lesson I can put to use next time.”
She also learned a lot from a former teammate. Kim played the final two rounds with Ana Belac, another Blue Devil from the 2019 national championship team. Belac was two years ahead of Kim and has already been the Epson Tour Player of the Year.
“It was great seeing her again,” Kim said. “We hadn’t played together since we were in college a couple of years ago, but it was fun to have a familiar face out here.”
They discussed hair care and skin products, and Kim noticed the places where Belac played away from hole locations. Two of Kim’s bogeys on Sunday came from firing at flags she had no business attacking – another lesson it takes new pros a month or two to figure out.
She is also learning how to book her own flights, schedule ground transportation, pay her caddie, find a hotel, figure out practice rounds, watch her diet on the road and manage all the expenses associated with being an entrepreneur.
“It’s definitely a tough transition,” Kim said. “I honestly didn’t realize how spoiled I was in college until I came out here and realized that I had to do all of this by myself. I actually called my (Duke) assistant coach (Jon Whithaus) and said, ‘Jon, I’m so sorry. I didn’t realize much I was taking for granted.’
“That is honestly the biggest hurdle right now, trying to figure out the street knowledge. I’m picking veterans’ brains every chance I get.
“It’s just a learning curve. Honestly, I think my golf game is there. I just need to do the stuff outside the ropes to get my mind right off the course.”
Then a couple of young fans approached and asked for a photo. “Sure,” Kim said, beaming as she pulled the girls to her side.
Just precious, indeed.