National championship experience. Laser-like focus. A flair for the dramatic. You put these traits together, and what do you get? Well, you get Duke women’s golf star Gina Kim, of course.
As the Blue Devils get set for their NCAA title defense, which begins Friday, it’s certainly worth noting the role that Kim has played in getting the Blue Devils to this point.
But if you want to get the full snapshot of how the junior arrived at this moment herself, you have to jump back in time and take a look at her journey. Going back to her junior golf career and her first year at Duke, Kim has certainly evolved up as a player.
“How to stay calm and not react immediately to one little mistake, I think that’s what I learned a lot,” Kim told The Chronicle Monday.
Like many journeys, Kim's starts in an unexpected place. So let's rewind.
With the sheer amount of fire and intensity that Kim displays while donning the blue and white, you would think that becoming a Blue Devil was a lifelong dream. Think again.
The junior actually grew up in nearby Chapel Hill, and her parents are longtime Spanish professors at the University of North Carolina. Ending up at Duke was not something Kim or her family had in the cards, but journeys are not often linear.
“It was definitely unexpected,” Kim said. “I was a pretty big UNC fan, granted I was raised in a UNC family. But after making my visit here at Duke, I realized that Duke was the perfect fit for me.”
Just think about that for a second. Kim was a huge Tar Heel fan growing up, but when college came calling, it was North Carolina's fiercest rival that made the lasting impression, with Kim ultimately committing to Dan Brooks and company.
“It was pretty much second home and I felt the most comfortable here, so I guess I was able to kind of throw away everything I knew and loved back on the other side of town and was able to come over here,” Kim said. “I’m still happy with my decision, I sometimes think about it to this day, and I don’t think I could find myself at any other college.”
The love affair with Duke culminated in Kim signing her letter of intent in November 2017. At the time, it was a safe bet to assume that Kim would be a major factor in the future of the program. Once she arrived in Durham though, Kim was thrown into the fire quickly.
Get Overtime, all Duke athletics
Signup for our editorially curated, weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
‘Freaked myself out’
In the eyes of head coach Dan Brooks, freshmen are not typically expected to be world-beaters right from the start. While that may seem like a reasonable expectation, Kim had other ideas during her first year on campus.
“I honestly felt a lot of pressure. Leona Maguire was the person I was replacing after she left, so I had some pretty big shoes to fill, and I still gotta fill 'em, even to this day,” Kim said. “She just accomplished so much, and I looked up to her and just the way she played golf.”
The departure of Maguire, as well as the fact that Duke had a roster ready-made to contend for another national title, magnified that pressure for Kim her freshman year. But thanks to some useful advice from her support system and former Duke men's basketball star RJ Barrett, the then-highly touted rookie was able to put things into a bit of perspective.
“I think I freaked myself out as a freshman, and it was my assistant coach and coach Brooks who had to help me stay grounded to the present and just enjoy the moment," Kim said. "I think I struggled a lot, but I learned a lot as well.”
Kim’s attitude adjustment paid off her freshman spring, as three top-11 finishes through the NCAA regionals gave her an added boost heading into the grueling six-day NCAA Championship in Fayetteville, Ark.
Going into that week, despite her obvious talent and jump in confidence, Kim’s outlook was that of someone who could not help but feel somewhat overwhelmed by the magnitude of her surroundings.
“When I went there the first time, I think I was just one of those curious freshmen that was too busy looking around at everything and just thinking ‘wow this is so amazing, I can’t believe I’m here,’” Kim said. “I think I was more in disbelief back then that it was finally happening.”
What had already been a whirlwind freshman year was not quite finished for Kim. With the Blue Devils advancing to match-play thanks to a second-place finish over 72 holes of stroke-play, Kim was given her toughest set of assignments of her short college career—navigating head-to-head grudge matches against three top-15 opponents.
Despite the shock to her system and the fact that she was pitted against No. 8 amateur Albane Valenzuela and No. 14 amateur Bianca Pagdanganan of Stanford and Arizona, respectively, Kim's play in the quarterfinals and semifinals was still befitting a player of her caliber.
The former two-time Rolex Junior First Team All-American came up clutch under the gun, including a miraculous fairway bunker shot in her duel with Pagdanganan that lifted Duke into the match-play finals. It was a defining shot of the event, and one that made outside observers truly realize that the Blue Devils had something special in Kim.
While Kim fell to Wake Forest's Emilia Miggliaccio in the finals, she still celebrated a national title conquest alongside her teammates. And a week later, she shot a first-round 66 at the US Women's Open, tied for the lowest single-round score for an amateur at the US Women's Open, on her way to eventually finishing in a tie for 12th as the low amateur.
‘Not try to force anything’
Fast forward to now, and Kim is simply at a different point in her golf career. She might once again be fighting for a national championship alongside her fellow Blue Devils, but unlike 2019, NCAAs are just part of the process for the former No. 1 junior golfer in North Carolina. Besides, with four players on the roster lacking NCAA title experience, Kim will have to help rally the troops off the golf course as well.
“Now that I’ve been through it all and I kinda know how things work, and knowing that I’m an upperclassman who my teammates hopefully look up to, I realize I need to set a better example and be more aware of my actions and my words, because I know that it would influence our freshmen and our sophomores,” Kim said.
Kim's new role might be partially thanks to her added experience, yet there’s still no doubt that Kim has added to her repertoire on the course. At just 21, Kim has made waves in the golf world, racking up 27 top-10s in AJGA events and receiving two invitations to the Augusta National Women’s Amateur. But in recent months, the Chapel Hill High School alum has seemingly taken things to another level. In the past three events, Kim finished sixth on average, including a three-stroke victory at the ACC Championship last month.
This was a huge turnaround for the junior who's average finish was roughly 35th at the Palmetto and Gamecock Intercollegiate, the first two events on the Blue Devils’ docket this spring. By Kim’s own estimation, that positive jump in results stems from an adjustment with the flatstick.
“Honestly for me, I don’t think skill wise anything really changed,” Kim said. “But the way I look at putts now, and the way I think about them, I think that’s why I‘ve had much better results now. Just being able to let it go and not try to force anything to happen, anything special to happen.”
'Thriving in those high-pressure situations'
On the mental side, things have also taken a positive turn for Kim, which can be traced back to the early stages of her Blue Devil career. At the professional level, golf is arguably the most isolated sport, with only a caddie and maybe a switch coach by your side to guide you through an enduring tournament. In college, on the other hand, the team component factors in significantly, something that Kim took advantage of in her early days at Duke.
“I was never too worried about the physical skills or the physical aspect of the game, because I knew I practiced hard enough in those terms," Kim said. "It was always the mental game part that I was always weak in, or more like I didn’t spend enough time on it. So being able to play a lot with some off the upperclassmen really helped me gain a perspective in how should I deal with a situation where things are not favorable towards me, and what can I do to keep fighting until the end and not give up, and obviously not turn into a hot mess after one bogey."
That ability to brush off a bad swing or a blemish on the scorecard will no doubt serve Kim extremely well this week. Not only is the Raptor course at Grayhawk Golf Club—the site of NCAAs—a stern test that will require some crafty scrambling and a short memory, but the Blue Devils will often need a hero in high-stakes scenarios, particularly if they move on to match-play in Arizona.
“Just the fact that I know I‘m capable of thriving in those high-pressure situations really helps me maintain my confidence going into this week," Kim said. "Knowing that my teammates trusted me as much as I trusted them is something that was really key for me, and it's something that I've emphasized to my teammates before we head off to Arizona tomorrow.”
It is impossible to predict exactly what will happen in the Valley of the Sun the next six days, but one thing is for certain. If Duke captures an eighth national championship, you can count on Kim having a significant hand in the proceedings.
Not bad for a childhood Tar Heel fan.
Max Rego is a Trinity junior and sports managing editor for The Chronicle's 117th volume.