Ann Arbor — If there was a trophy and a first-place check for popularity on the LPGA Tour, Christina Kim would likely have a room full of hardware.
One of the more energetic members of the tour, it’s hard to find anyone with a negative thing to say about the three-time member of the U.S. Solheim Cup team. But often, especially over the last two seasons, matching that infectious attitude with solid scores has been a challenge for the player who joined the tour in 2003.
Kim, a three-time winner, didn’t have a top-10 finish in 2015. Through 10 events in 2016, she’s missed four cuts and her best finish was a tie for 19th at the Swinging Skirts LPGA Classic in April.
On top of that, Kim hadn’t shot better than 70 in the last 21 rounds, dating back to a final-round 67 at the JTBC Founders Cup in March.
All of which made what happened Thursday in the first round of the Volvik Championship at Travis Pointe Country Club all the more impressive, if not completely surprising. Playing in the morning, before the wind kicked up in the afternoon, Kim fired an 8-under 64 to take a one-shot lead over Ariya Jutanugarn.
“I’ve been playing really well. It’s just the scores haven’t reflected how I’ve been playing,” Kim said. “I’ve been working really, really hard on my game and, you know, it was out there, it was definitely gettable out there. It’s a brand new golf course and no one really knew what was going to kind of happen, but the course was very receptive to low scores, I think.
“It’s just a matter of being patient and not being necessarily too aggressive. There are certain holes where I was like, I can walk away with a par and I’ll be fine with that. Several par-5s were reachable, which I thought was a nice change to most of the tournaments we play on the LPGA Tour, and I think the officials did a great job of setting it up. But it was out there. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone gets me by two by the end of the day.”
Nobody did that, though Jutanugarn gave it a shot. The winner of the last two Tour events just missed a birdie putt on her final hole — No. 9 — that would have moved her into a tie with Kim. Minjee Lee and So Yeon Ryu each shot 4-under 68 while four players shot 3-under 69.
“I didn’t feel I’m getting stronger, I just keep playing my game, keep like trying to make birdie every hole,” said Jutanugarn, who birdied three of her final five holes. “Today (it was) a little bit windy on the back nine and I just have to control my ball flight. My tee shot was pretty good, my iron was good today.”
While Jutanugarn has been riding the wave of success over the past two weeks, Kim has been fighting to get her game back to the level it was early in her career. She won during her second year on Tour in 2004 and matched that in 2005 and reached $1 million in earnings by the age of 20.
But the consistency faded from there. She’s played well enough to reach the Solheim Cup in 2005, 2009 and 2011, but contending on a regular basis has been difficult. Her win at the Lorena Ochoa Invitational in 2014 seemed like a breakthrough, but she’s struggled since.
However, it’s never affected her approach to the game.
“I’ve been out here too damn long to really — of course it is still frustrating when you’re not necessarily being rewarded for the work that you’re putting in out here,” Kim said. “But golf never gives you anything, it never lets up. So I just figured all I can do is continue to try and play my best, and at the end of the day as long as I can go home exhausted knowing that I’ve tried everything that I could to play a good round, then that’s all I can do. At the end of the day, you know, things will balance out.”
That positive attitude was on display Thursday.
In the midst of her round, she took time to impart advice on playing partner Grace Na, a tour rookie who shot 7-over 79 and has made just one cut this year.
“I think everyone knows Christina is fun to be around,” Na said. “I would ask her questions and she gives the best advice. It’s good to get support from a veteran who is nice enough to care for a rookie. She knows what she doing.”
When Kim finished her round, she headed back to the practice green where she shared an embrace with Lydia Ko, the 19-year-old that is ranked the No. 1 player in the world who shot 1-under 71.
Then it was back to work.
“There’s always something you could improve upon, and I’ll just sort of take that score and keep it in my pocket and brand new day tomorrow,” Kim said. “I’m just going to start, pretend like I’m back at even par and try and fight my way back to 8-under at the end of the day.”