The kid's got some nerve.
When Anthony Kim was 9 or 10 years old, and small for his age, he was talking smack to middle-aged men on the putting green. They laughed as they lined up their putts and threw down quarters, betting against the skinny grade-schooler in the glasses.
But the kid spent hours at a Studio City golf course. And while his swing on the driving range was mighty, his touch on the green was soft. He struck long putts that gracefully broke to find the hole. Then he commented on his opponents' play while scooping up his shiny earnings.
Then the kid grew up. He played a year for Campbell Hall High before moving east to the desert to be near PGA West. His parents stayed behind in Los Angeles to mind their store and visited on weekends. He graduated from La Quinta High, got a scholarship to the University of Oklahoma, and helped the Sooners to their first Big 12 golf title.
When he left after his junior year, it was to bring a new name to the PGA Tour. Just in case someone forgets, on tournament days he wears his initials A.K. on a flashy belt buckle that sparkles in the sun.
Two years later and Kim has become hard to miss on the tour. This year he racked up wins at the Wachovia Championship in May and the AT&T National two months later and was a key member of the triumphant U.S. Ryder Cup team in September. He finished sixth on the money list with $4.6 million.
The 23-year-old's popularity, however, seems to be more about attitude -- the same one he has displayed since childhood.
"Don't get me wrong, Tiger's the man," said 17-year-old Candace Robledo, who eagerly awaited an autograph from Kim during the pro-am of this week's Chevron World Challenge at Sherwood Country Club in Thousand Oaks. "But something in the way Anthony carries himself -- he doesn't seem like one of those golfer guys."
Watch Kim walk a few holes and you'll understand his popularity. He saunters. He swaggers. He shoves his fists into his pockets and kicks at the grass. He jokes with the gallery behind the ropes. He acts like he doesn't care, then he lines up and sends a ball screaming down the fairway. Afterward comes that self-assured grin.
"I'm just being myself," Kim said about his antics. "I don't try to be anybody I'm not, and I'm having fun doing it."
Go ahead, call it cockiness.
"He is cocky," said Paul Hibler, who has known Kim since his hustling days on the green. "But that's his thing. There were people trying to tell him to take that out of himself. That wasn't the right way to go. You gotta play to your strengths, and he plays with emotion."
Hibler, 50, occasionally caddied for Kim during his amateur days.
"There were times in the U.S. Junior Amateur where I would have to talk him out of shots because they were just so insane," he recalled. "He'd try crazy stuff on the 18th hole. He just had absolutely no fear and 90% of the time he could pull it off."
Brad Sherfy, a former UCLA golf coach who privately instructed Kim for seven years, said Kim's confidence is what gave him an edge.
"He relished being in the lead or in the hunt," Sherfy said. "He felt like, just get me near the hunt, get me near the lead and I'll close it out. There has to be some internal makeup to where you're comfortable being the best, or you're comfortable being in the lead -- Anthony had that."
Not everyone has been enamored with Kim's take on the game. He butted heads with his strict father for years, although the two have since made amends. And while Kim's Oklahoma coach always spoke diplomatically of the golfer, the two did not get along.
And then there's the way Kim handled his rookie year on the tour. He declared he was out for Woods, but then sometimes he'd show up at a tournament hung over or play on just a few hours of sleep.
The upcoming year is about to be different, though, he told reporters Wednesday.
"When I came out here in '07, I felt like I was ready to take on the world and I wasn't," he said. "But I'm learning. I'm learning how to schedule, I'm learning how to practice. . . . It's been a life change."
As for people's perceptions of him, Kim said his main goal is to win, but that he's aware of his reputation for being brash.
"I'm trying to improve on the golf course, but I'm trying to improve my image as well. It's important to me what my friends and my parents think, and when my mom said, 'You could tone it down a little bit,' then I'm probably gonna tone it down."
An hour into the pro-am, Kim picked out a 12-year-old boy from the crowd to be his caddie. Carrying the yellow bag twice his size, the kid struggled as he walked the next few holes.
"Dang, that bag ain't going upright as fast as it was the first hole," Kim called out just before attempting to chip his ball out of the rough. Instead, his shot dropped next to a sand trap, well short of the green.
"Shoulda hit a three-[iron]," the kid said.
Kim stopped for a second, then burst out laughing.
The kid's got some nerve.