Anthony Kim a dark horse at British Open

By Paul Newberry

SOUTHPORT, England – Anthony Kim stopped off on his way to the clubhouse, whipped out his pen to sign a few autographs, then looked back impatiently at his caddie, still loitering on the ninth green.

“Let’s go, E!” he barked toward Eric Larsen. “You know how cranky I get when I’m hungry.”

Kim was just kidding around, but it wouldn’t be out of line to say those words carried meaning.

This guy isn’t waiting around for anyone. There are places to be, golf tournaments to win.

Maybe even a major.

In his second year on the PGA Tour, Kim has won on two of the most challenging courses and established himself as the latest would-be contender to Tiger Woods’ throne. With the king on hiatus – Woods is sitting out the rest of the year to recover from knee surgery – the expectations on this cocky 23-year-old from Los Angeles have only intensified heading into the British Open.

“He’s got a lot of game,” Jim Furyk said. “I just don’t see a lot of weaknesses. I haven’t played a lot with him, but when I have, I haven’t seen him do anything poorly.”

Kim picked up his first tour victory in May at the Wachovia Championhip, running away with a five-stroke victory at Quail Hollow. He followed up with a two-stroke win at the AT&T; Classic over the Fourth of July weekend at Congressional, an especially poignant triumph since Woods is the tournament host.

Could Kim be the one who has both the talent and, even more important, the swagger to go swing-for-swing with the perhaps the greatest player ever?

Before we get ahead of ourselves, remember that plenty of others have tried and failed to provide Woods with the only thing lacking in his brilliant career: a true challenger.

Everyone from Sergio Garcia to Adam Scott has been promoted as a potential rival to Woods, but all have been found to be woefully lacking based on that very demanding standard.

David Duval had a run at No. 1, but his career fell apart just when he seemed ready to serve as the Tom Watson to Woods’ Jack Nicklaus.

Phil Mickelson has three major titles and might be the only current player to approach Woods’ shot-making ability, but even Lefty will concede that he’s got no chance of being anything more than a second banana.

Which brings us to Kim.

He doesn’t shy away from the comparison.

“You aren’t going to see too many people do what he’s done,” Kim said of Woods. “I just feel lucky to be mentioned in the same breath. I know everyone is kind of looking for someone to challenge him. It’s going to be tough, but I’m just going to keep working hard and see where that gets me.”

When asked if he has the sort of game that could measure up to a player with 14 major championships, Kim replied, “I’d love to think so. At the end of the day, I don’t know who has enough talent to overtake him. But I know if I give it everything I’ve got, I’ll have a pretty good chance to contend.”

Kim’s confidence is most tellingly revealed in his body language.

During a practice round that began late Monday afternoon and stretched into the evening, he didn’t just walk the course – he strutted, his shoulders bobbing up and down with a deliberate, distinct cadence.

After practicing some testy shots from a deep pot bunker, Kim could have walked out of the sand on the shallow back side, like everyone else. Instead, he leaped onto the green over a wall of imbedded sod, as if to show nothing could hold him back.

He stood at the next tee bouncing a golf ball off the face of his driver with monotonous precision while carrying on a conversation with his practice partner, Mark O’Meara.

“I really like the guy,” Furyk said. “He’s got a real confident feel about him. Even as a rookie, just the way he handled himself, walking around the locker room. He almost appears cocky, but I don’t see that side of him when he talks to you. He’s just very confident. He has a lot of belief in his ability.”

With good reason, according to O’Meara, who’s taken Kim under his wing and seems determined to nurture him along just as he once did with another dazzling young phenom – Tiger Woods.

“This kid here is the best young player I’ve ever seen come along, besides Tiger Woods,” O’Meara said. “He has the most skill, the most talent. He seems like he’s got an attitude, but he’s not afraid.”

During his days as a tour regular, the 51-year-old O’Meara used to get up early for practice rounds with Woods. Now, playing under a slowly darkening sky, the 1998 British Open champion asked Kim if he wanted go out again Tuesday at 6:30 a.m.

“You get up that early?” O’Meara asked.

“Yeah, I get up early,” Kim replied.

Tiger who?

Even last year, when hardly anyone knew his name, Kim swaggered around like he was the one with Woods’ resume. When the normally conservative Furyk wandered out to the driving range wearing a pink shirt, the youngster let him have it.

“Look at you, stepping it up with the pink shirt,” Furyk remembers him saying.

Now, it might have been OK for someone such as Woods or Mickelson to get in a few good-natured jabs at a player of Furyk’s stature. But a rookie?

Beyond his razzing skills – something Woods is also pretty good at – Kim has shown a killer instinct on the course.

“You don’t see a lot of young guys like that get in contention on a tough course like Wachovia and then just beat the snot out of everyone,” Furyk said. “He gets up two, pretty soon it’s three, pretty soon it’s four. You have to have a lot of belief in yourself to do that.”