Si Woo Kim's Players Championship win puts him in elite company

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- The 21-year-old with the nerves of steel had just successfully made the most important swing of his young career, a wedge that found dry land on TPC Sawgrass' infamous butterfly-inducing, water-enclosed 17th hole, leaving left his caddie, Mark Carens, offering a pronounced sigh of relief. He followed with the most important two-putt of his young career, a lag and tap-in that left him 3 strokes ahead of the field.

It was then that Si Woo Kim coolly walked off the green while being serenaded by some of the few rowdy fans on this uncommonly calm Sunday afternoon. "One more hole!" they chanted. "One more hole!"

Kim shot them a glance as if to say, "Yeah, no kidding," never breaking stride until the 18th tee box, where he striped a 3-wood like he'd been in this position a hundred times before.

One of the inherent beauties of the Players Championship is that it mirrors the Masters Tournament. They are each annually held on the same course, which means longtime observers can learn every nook and cranny of the property -- from the dangerous curves around hazards to the subtle breaks of putts.

There also exists a familiarity of the atmosphere. By the time a player reaches his second shot on the par-5 16th hole in the final round, he is fully surrounded by a maelstrom of activity around him. The buzz is palpable. It grows to a crescendo around that 17th green, then lingers for the duration of the onerous final hole.

Well, it usually does. By the time Kim reached his ball in the 18th fairway, that din had faded to a steady lull. When he delicately knocked his second shot safely short of the green, it hardly caused a ripple. To call the ensuing reaction a smattering of applause is an overstatement. A few people in the gallery clapped, none of them lustily.

Maybe he isn't flashy enough. Maybe he isn't accomplished enough. Maybe it was the cultural barrier. Maybe it was the discernible differential between him and the next-closest competitor, which essentially rendered the final result a done deal.

Or maybe fans have just grown weary of the same old story, over and over again.

You know the one: Ultra-talented young player vanquishes field of accomplished veterans, zip-lining his way into the ever-growing discussion of next-generation stars.

Prior to this weekend, there were already eight players aged 25 or younger in the world's top-40 -- and each is a familiar name to even the most casual golf fan: Hideki Matsuyama (25), Jordan Spieth (23), Justin Thomas (24), Jon Rahm (22), Thomas Pieters (25), Daniel Berger (24), Matthew Fitzpatrick (22) and Emiliano Grillo (24). Kim now joins this list, even if our senses have dulled as to how lofty an accomplishment this is at such a young age.

Perhaps we should've seen it coming. He cruised through the last Q School in which players could jump directly to the PGA Tour, then spent much of his first season playing the waiting game, because he didn't meet the age requirement of 18. His victory at last year's Wyndham Championship served as a precursor to bigger things coming, but even that didn't foretell just how big.

In winning the Players, Kim becomes the youngest champion ever, besting Adam Scott by nearly two full years. Kim is now also the fourth-youngest player to claim multiple PGA Tour titles in the past quarter-century, behind only Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Spieth.

"I am very excited I'm the youngest champion for this tournament," he said after a final-round, bogey-free 3-under 69. "I'm very honored to be that."

"He's so mature for 21," explained Carens, who has been caddying for him since 2015. "When he gets in the hunt, he's fearless. He loves it. I think he's a superstar anyway, but I think this is definitely going to make everybody else see it, too."

If Kim isn't fearless, he did a pretty great acting job on Sunday afternoon. On a golf course that saw a bevy of big-name players struggle through double- and triple-bogeys, Kim simply picked it apart with ruthless precision.

He might not be the next big superstar in golf, but he's certainly in the conversation with those other young players he's now joined amongst that upper echelon in the world ranking. This was a triumph that didn't resonate immediately with the stoic Sawgrass gallery -- and maybe didn't resonate immediately with Kim, either, as he offered only a small fist-pump upon clinching the title.

It was a win, though, that clearly elevates his profile, that of a fearless 21-year-old with those nerves of steel that never wavered.