As senior golfer Alex Kim prepares to make his final postseason run as a Bruin, he finds himself in a position unfamiliar to him in his first three years at UCLA ““ in the role of a mentor.
“There’s a freshman I grew up playing golf with since he was about 8 years old who struggled a lot this year, and I just told him, “˜Hey, I went through the same thing, but if you just work on the things you need to and learn from this year, you can do what I did,’” Kim said.
While his leadership and place on the lineup card are cemented now, there was a time when Kim’s role on the team was unclear and his future uncertain.
“College golf is a lot different than what I expected. Walking in as a freshman I really didn’t know anything, especially with school,” said Kim, who began his college career in 2008, the fall after the Bruins won the national championship. “It was just a whole different atmosphere, and I had to learn a lot from the upperclassmen. How to manage your time was the biggest key for me.”
On the golf course, despite the clear physical deficiencies that accompanied his lightweight high school frame, Kim displayed characteristics that suggested he was capable of achieving success at the college level.
“When he came into college he was not a very big kid, not very strong and didn’t hit the ball very far, but I knew there were some intangibles with him and he’s a fighter ““ you always want him in your corner,” said coach Derek Freeman. “Those things outweighed his physical attributes as a player.”
In his freshman year, Kim struggled to adapt to the college game, consistently struggling to shoot low scores. Compounding Kim’s individual shortcomings were the team’s struggles, including early departures and a lack of discipline, all of which resulted in a failed title defense.
Following a year of lows, Kim’s drive and competitive nature were on full display as he used the sense of disappointment to make huge strides of improvement.
“I learned a lot about myself. I realized there was a lot of room for me to grow, and I took that to heart,” said Kim of his freshman year, which he cites as the most important of his college career. “The summer break after my freshman year I put in a lot of work because I didn’t want to repeat what I did my freshman year.”
The training Kim did that summer led to results that the entire nation saw. His sophomore year, he was named an honorable mention on Golfweek’s All-American team.
Although the end result wasn’t ideal, the team also showed signs of improvement that season, finishing 16th at the NCAA Championship versus 23rd the previous year.
His junior year, a combination of upperclassman experience and young talent produced a championship-contending run in which the Bruins fell just short of reclaiming the title.
“We won stroke play, and I honestly think the stroke play portion of Nationals shows you who the real best team is,” Kim said. “It was really disappointing, but I think that gave our team a lot more drive and motivation for this year because we don’t want that bitter taste in our mouth again.”
Now, in Kim’s final year, he and No. 3 UCLA are in possibly their best position to win the championship since his enrollment.
In addition to being arguably the most talented team since 2008, the Bruins are benefited by leadership from their only senior, Kim.
“It’s cool to have that one guy, that leader, that’s always there,” said freshman Matt Pinizzotto. “In the workout room and on the golf course, he’s always pushing us and making us better.”
When Kim stepped foot on campus his freshman year, he looked to upperclassmen for guidance, a role he now finds himself in as an experienced senior.
Over the last four years, those outside of the team have seen Kim’s growth in his statistics and accolades.
But those within the program have witnessed his development in the less tangible assets he brings to the team.
“He’s constantly encouraging and trying to support his teammates to make sure they’re doing OK,” Freeman said. “That’s something that you can’t put a score on or anything like that, that’s just someone that cares about his teammates and wants them to be successful.”