To fulfill her awesome potential, Duke senior Gina Kim had to silence her toughest critic—herself
By Jordan Perez
Don’t be fooled by the slight daily improvement in Gina Kim’s scores at the 2019 ACC Championship—that broken trio of rounds was the evidence that a rising star was burning out. Restless nights with little sleep, a compromised immune system, never-ending anxiety … that was Gina’s freshman year at Duke University. The North Carolina native was obsessed with proving that Dan Brooks, the winningest coach in college golf, had made the right bet on her. The boiling point came when one of Brooks’s lieutenants, Jon Whithaus, approached Gina during the ACCs. He could see something was wrong with his decorated freshman. Panic-stricken, Gina sobbed as the pair walked down the fairway at Sedgefield Country Club, trying to work through her existential crisis between swings.
“What’s the point of playing golf if I’m going to feel this way every single time?” she asked her coach.
Whithaus’s wisdom was inspired. “In the moment, I’m sympathetic,” he says now, “but in the big picture, it’s a bit exciting because there’s a huge opportunity to reframe some definitions and the way a player views themself.”
Kim’s journey to the top of the college game had begun.
Becoming a Blue Devil
Her roster bio reads New Mexico, but the Blue Ridge Mountains are all she has known. Gina was born to Hosun and Sangsuk Kim. The family left for Chapel Hill when she was a baby, her parents becoming Spanish professors in the romance languages department at the University of North Carolina.
Hosun had inherited a love of golf from his father and was eager to pass it on to Gina and her older sister, Hannah. One evening, he took his daughters to a driving range. Neither girl enjoyed the experience, but when Gina saw how heartbroken her dad was over their apathy, she pretended to like the game…
For two years.
It was an easy facade. Follow Dad along for his rounds, gush over the turtles and ducks, and hit some shots here and there. What she didn’t plan on was the lie coming true. All it took was a shiny gold trophy to persuade Gina. After that first, unexpected win at age 8, Gina threw herself into competitive golf.
Her world had been painted in Carolina Blue, but as a teenager, she often strayed into Durham territory to take lessons at the Duke University Golf Club. She fell in love with the campus and ultimately pitched herself to Brooks in an email that began: “My name is Gina Kim. I am a junior golfer.”
She listed her junior golf resume, which would include three high school state championships, two AJGA wins and 27 top 10s, the Junior Solheim Cup and the Junior Ryder Cup. She mentioned having the “unique privilege of seeing firsthand how hard these girls work.” It was a terrific sales job but wholly unnecessary—Brooks was already a fan.
“I knew about her passion, I knew about her talent,” he says. “It was sort of a no-brainer.”
Gina took her official visit and committed within a week.
Quick to qualify
On a humid afternoon in late October, Kim stands over a putt on the 18th green at the Bobcat Course at Plantation Golf & Country Club in Venice, Fla. Weeks earlier, she had taken medalist honors at Stage I of the LPGA Q-Series. It looked a little too easy. Now at Stage II, the strain is showing after four days of grinding. Kim faces one more par putt to finish off an exhausting final round of 72 and she has a new trick up her sleeve: a shoulder tap instituted by Whithaus to implement into her putting routine. Kim taps her shoulder both to align her posture and to settle her nerves. With her claw grip, she drains the putt, and then a wave of relief washes over her behind the green when she learns her four-round total of 282 is good enough to move on to the final stage. It’s the least secure she has felt during the whole process, but Kim knows the torture is over. For now.
“I think I’ve passed the hardest part,” Gina says, noting her guaranteed Symetra status by advancing to Q-Series. “But I’m not gonna let myself relax too much.”
It’s not her usual winter offseason. After she qualified for the Q-Series, she immediately drove to Atlanta to support her Duke teammates in their final event of the fall, the East Lake Cup. She opted to rest and supply supportive cheers, which were nearly as impactful as if she had been posting her typically low scores. “Nothing’s going to fire you up more than hearing Gina’s screams,” fellow Blue Devil Erica Shepherd said.
And then, back to Durham. For Duke women’s golf, things are quieting down. But Gina’s inner voice is only getting louder. The practice time, the mental focus: Everything is ramping up in preparation for the final portion of qualifying for the LPGA.
Back to the beginning
Three tournaments into her Duke career, Gina felt lost with her golf game. As if that stress wasn’t enough, midterms loomed. Feeling bleak, enveloped by the North Carolina chill, Gina entered an early morning exam with friend and fellow athlete R.J. Barrett, the basketball player. They scribbled on an exam they couldn’t quite master and then grabbed breakfast to stress-eat.
The golf woes clouding Gina’s mind eventually reared their ugly head, and the meal became a full-on vent session for Gina. R.J. listened intently, hoping to empathize from athlete to athlete.
When she finished, R.J. delivered.
“Have you beaten the No. 3 player in the world?” he asked.
“What about No. 1?”
“Oh yeah, of course,” she responded matter-of-factly. “Multiple times.”
“Then you’re fine. You’re going to be fine.” R.J. said. “If you can beat the top three, why can’t you beat the rest of the field?”
It was a rhetorical question from quite the source; Barrett would soon become the third pick in the NBA Draft, by the New York Knicks. He emphasized that Gina needed to shift from her toxic results-based mindset and stop nitpicking the tiny flaws in her game.
“If you’ve done it a hundred times, then you can do it 101 times.”
Gina took the advice to heart, bringing out her best in Duke’s final event of her freshman fall. She co-medaled with teammate Virginia Elena Carta, leading the Blue Devils to the team title (below).
Gina was one step closer to defeating her inferiority complex. No one could tell her anything—she had just won her first collegiate event in only her third start.
Little did she know the victory would only fuel her obsession.
New Year, New Gina?
When the winter snow melts in Durham, national championship hopes heat up. But that’s not just for the basketball team. Brooks, whose seven national championships are two more than Mike Krzyzewski has, entered the spring of 2019 with a promising roster full of veterans: junior Ana Belac, Slovenia’s top-ranked golfer; Jaravee Boonchant, an IMG product and the team’s up-and-coming sophomore star, in the top 30 of the world amateur rankings; Carta, the decorated athlete and senior scholar who would be Cambridge-bound; Hannah O’Sullivan, the youngest winner in the history of the Symetra Tour; and Miranda Wang, a lineup staple who helped anchor many team wins. Then there was Gina. The local girl. The girl whom Brooks already believed in long before her commitment, who spent her blockbuster junior years in around the Duke athletic facilities.
Still, Gina felt intense pressure to live up to the team’s lofty expectations.
“I would live and die on each shot,” Kim recalls. “If you hit a great shot, you’re living. But when it doesn’t work out, which is inevitable in the game of golf, you’re just stuck with this crappy feeling for the rest of the day.”
She never finished worse than 30th in a tournament but tended to focus on the downside of her performance. “If my shots were working one day, my putting wasn’t,” Gina says. “If my putting was working one day, my shots definitely weren’t working.”
But why wasn’t her game clicking? “Gina was trying to impress everyone around her, not quite trusting how good she was,” Whithaus says. “She wasn’t comfortable discussing obstacles and dilemmas and situations that were facing her.”
The tipping point came at the ACC Championship, leading Kim to sit down with both of her coaches for a vulnerable conversation. She needed to. After all, this Duke team was counting on her at the looming NCAAs. Gina was asked by her coaches to let go a little bit and allow her talent flow.
“Every great player goes through it,” Brooks told her. “Simply because they know they’re able to do better.”
But was she? For the first time in her life, she was questioning whether she wanted to become a professional golfer. She had sacrificed her social life, her summers and the chance to be a normal teenager. Kim felt it all slipping away.
Then she woke up. She discovered what had been missing—the awareness of how lucky she was to be playing the game she loved. “I’m really privileged to even be out here, to begin with,” Gina says. “So like, I’m not quite sure why I would be angry.”
Freeing her mind involved simple things. From switching up the music that blared through her AirPods between classes to strengthening her Christian faith to daily affirmations, her attitude shifted to one of gratitude.
To this day, Kim’s evolution has left Whithaus in awe.
“Gina’s mentality and her decision to be very diligent every day about her mental habits is off the charts. Basically the best I’ve ever seen,” he says. “She makes many, many decisions every day, realizing that the next physical repetition will not leave her the same.”
Duke made a run in the stroke-play portion of the national championship. Letting go allowed Gina to supercharge her game. She tied for 10th, helping the Blue Devils secure the No. 2 seed in match play.
Brooks put Kim up against Stanford’s Albane Valenzuela, the No. 8-ranked player in the world. Gina birdied the last hole to win 1 up, helping send Duke to the semifinals. There, Kim faced No. 14-ranked Bianca Pagdanganan of Arizona. They were all-square playing the 18th hole. Kim drove into a precarious position in a fairway bunker, nestled on the upslope a few feet from the lip. Pagdanganan had the advantage in the fairway.
Duke and Arizona were tied 2-2. A spot in the final rested on this match.
Gina hit the shot of a lifetime, nearly clipping the flagstick and leaving herself a short birdie putt. Her mom watched in tears. A proud coach knew the magnitude of the moment. “For her to be able to go into that bunker and hit that shot, when it mattered so much to everybody, she’d really climbed the mountain,” Brooks says. “You don’t just get away with stuff like that. That was a pure skill shot. She had to have herself completely composed in order to hit that shot.”
Hours later, Duke met Wake Forest in the final. Kim battled it out in another tightly contested match, this time falling to Emilia Migliaccio. But her inspired teammates picked her up, and Duke took the national championship.
Gina had led the way, and that confidence would carry into earning low amateur honors at the U.S. Women’s Open the following week, on the strength of an opening-round 66.
Still, Kim was not content. In the fall of 2019 she ended a years-long relationship with Ed Ibarguen and began working with Ted Oh, the Los Angeles-based instructor. Oh, whose experience includes working with Lydia Ko and other LPGA pros, redefined Gina’s swing. She says it’s the best career decision she has made.
“Part of me sometimes looks back on my old swing and wonders, ‘How on earth did I even hit the ball like that?’” she says. “I’ve gained a lot of confidence because of Ted. My game’s improved so much and it’s gotten to a level where I think I can take that game out on the LPGA and be very successful with it.”
Oh addressed some of Kim’s bad habits, which included a “wristy” takeaway that she says had her “slapping” at the ball. The two honed in on compressing the ball properly and shallowing out her swing.
But as soon as Kim mastered her new action, the pandemic hit. Her best would have to wait—the ACC opted not to compete in fall 2020. Still, on New Year’s Eve, she won the Harder Hall Invitational, ending a year-and-a-half victory drought. She felt reborn. “Even when you’re like nervous or down in the dumps mentally, I think just being able to change the language you say to yourself is a huge part,” Kim said. “I’m out here trying to be happy. I’ve just stopped really caring about what other people think.”
“I think this is a good sign,” she said, hardware in hand. “I think 2021’s going to be a good year.”
The real Gina Kim
At the same conference championship where she had been her very worst, Gina found her very best, shooting 68-69-69 to become the 2021 ACC individual champion and tying Duke’s 54-hole scoring record. The Blue Devils followed the conference title with a run to the semifinals at the national championship before falling to Oklahoma State. Gina carried the momentum into the summer. She conquered Pinehurst at the Women’s North & South Amateur, then went undefeated in the Arnold Palmer Cup, rising into the top 10 of the World Amateur Golf Ranking. She helped lead Team USA to a win at the Curtis Cup (below).
For all of Kim’s physical gifts, her teammate Shepherd is most impressed by the mental transformation. “How much of a mess she was her freshman year and then to be at the top of the game, I think that that is such an inspiration,” Shepherd says. “Happy Gina equals good golf.”
Still, the ultimate test loomed: Q-Series, with 110 women competing in eight rounds across 14 days in Alabama. The top 20 would earn full LPGA cards, while those finishing 21st to 45th would gain Symetra status and conditional LPGA membership. Gina held steady in Week 1 with rounds of 70-72-71-73; in 52nd place, she safely advanced to the second week. With an opening-round 66, she jumped into the top 45. She followed with rounds of 70-71 to stay in good position, but the final round was grueling. Two front-9 bogeys sent Kim tumbling down the leaderboard. Just get it into the house, she told herself. Just bring it home. She fought hard to finish 35th. Of course, the coveted top 20 had been her goal, but a mature Kim acknowledges her reality with balance and composure. “We can’t always get what we want in life,” she said. She believes there’s a greater plan out there for her. The hardest part (Q-Series) is over.
At the card ceremony, Kim smiled from ear to ear as all 45 graduates—mostly rookies—posed for photographs. An obvious dilemma looms: What now? Kim says finishing her classes in the spring and earning a degree is non-negotiable. But should she turn pro immediately and begin chasing her childhood dream or make one last run at a national championship with her best friends? Kim remains undecided.
Back in Alabama, those questions could wait; Kim was still basking in the accomplishment. Her smiles for the Q-Series photos symbolized so much. She had climbed her own Everest, with happy Gina getting the happy ending she worked so hard for. Smiling and laughing, she proudly displayed her dream job offer in both hands.
Gina Kim. LPGA member.