AKRON, Ohio -- His ball deep in the trees along the left side of the fairway, Anthony Kim began doing traffic-cop gyrations to move the gallery out of the way.
Hands waved, fingers pointed, his torso leaned -- but the message was missed.
|In his past two international competitions, Anthony Kim is 5-2-1 and his teams are 2-0. (AP)|
Two dozen fans moved like a herd of dumb cattle straight to their left, to another rope located 180 degrees in the wrong direction, prompting Kim to shake his head and exhale loudly. Fittingly enough, as it turned out, because Kim's directional compass was off at times Thursday as well.
Playing his first 18-hole round since having surgery on his left hand three months ago, Kim carved it around Firestone Country Club in a ragged 5-over 75, then tried to keep the bigger picture in mind at the Bridgestone Invitational.
"The thumb's fine, it's just sore because it was immobilized for so long," he said. "It's something a couple of birdies will take care of."
If not a couple more rounds, he hopes. With making the U.S. Ryder Cup team his primary goal of the season, Kim was predictably rusty in his first full round of any kind since May 2, which only underscored the notion that with two weeks left before the automatic spots on the American team are locked in, the spot presumably occupied by the 25-year-old might be the most pivotal on the roster.
"Yeah, he's a real asset for the team, there's no question about that," Phil Mickelson said Thursday. "But two years ago we didn't have the best player in the world on our team and we were able to win."
Of course, the U.S. took down the favored Europeans two years ago without injured Tiger Woods, but based on the way the world No. 1 is playing, he won't be much of an asset even if he makes the team this time. Mickelson hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard marquee since winning at the Masters, either.
All of which makes Kim's recovery prognosis pretty simple as it relates to the Wales tale: Without him, the American side has no chance of winning. In fact, even with him in top form, the task remains downright daunting. In his past two team matches, Kim is a combined 5-2-1 and helped lead the U.S. to wins in both.
At the risk of sounding jingoistic, that's what made a few of his sideways shots Thursday slightly cringe-inducing. Kim, a gung-ho player with an aggressive streak akin to Mickelson's, tried to ignore the scorecard -- decorated with one birdie and six bogeys -- and examine the day in a broader context.
"It was about getting back in the rhythm of it," Kim said. "I was happy with how I thought out there. I made a lot of good decisions, made a couple of poor ones, and rushed a few shots that made it taste a little bit bitter. "I didn't have huge expectations."
For good reason. Kim is still taking wobbly, baby Bambi steps toward his recovery and has hardly played a lick since he was green-lighted by his doctors to return. The rising American star hit a bucket of balls before playing eight holes Tuesday, then was so sore he only played nine holes the following day.
"I really had a hard time hitting balls on Wednesday," he said.
If there was a positive development in his round, it's that his misses were largely pulls to the left, which meant that he was releasing his hands powerfully through impact, vs. hitting weak and tentative pushes down the right side. His longtime swing coach, Adam Schreiber, watched from along the gallery ropes and agreed with two premises: Kim's case of the yanks will be easy to fix. And Kim is an integral part of the Yanks' winning formula.
"The golf dorks who have played nothing but golf, don't have nearly the heart that he does from playing team sports," Schreiber said, noting how Kim loved mixing it up in blacktop hoops games while growing up in Los Angeles. "That kid will never quit."
They might need to clone him. By comparison, the European side is so loaded, there are currently four players in the world top 20 who aren't holding down one of the team's nine automatic spots -- PGA Tour stars Justin Rose, Paul Casey and Padraig Harrington, plus Italian standout Edoardo Molinari.
Coincidentally, a lack of firepower was the most telling part of Kim's comeback round, too. He was shorter off the tee and might have to live with that fact for a few more weeks.
"I told him, 'You've got to put your ego aside until you get it all back,'" Schreiber said. "Until he gets back in golf shape."
Kim laughed when the question was posed whether he could throttle it back until he gets his timing and strength back. "You know what, it's not about the ego," he said, laughing. "I am 5-foot nothing and I don't expect to bomb it by anybody. I don't know how I was hitting it that far anyway. ... It's hard playing golf when you don't feel like you are at the top of your game."
After signing his card, Kim quickly headed toward the tour therapy trailer to find a bag of ice for his hand, but he first showed it to a handful of onlookers. Doctors fixed a shredded tendon and inserted a permanent screw. A jagged two-inch scar, the result of an incision that required 10 stitches to close, remains, covered by his glove when he plays.
For two weeks after the procedure, he sat on his couch with a remote control in his right hand and a bag of Doritos at his side. Then he got back to work. In terms of his physical conditioning, he has never looked leaner.
Second in Ryder points when he had the surgery, he tried not to watch his slow slide down the U.S. list, where he currently stands a fairly safe fifth with two tournaments left before the automatic berths are finalized. He agonized for weeks about whether, and when, to have the surgery so that he had enough time to recover before the Ryder is played.
Bad habits were creeping into his swing from over-compensating for his hand, so the surgery came after Quail Hollow, where he finished T7 and played the final round with winner Rory McIlroy, a lock for the European Ryder team.
Then Kim sweated out the Ryder points situation and hoped the surgery took hold. Putting a clock on hand and wrist injuries can be an iffy proposition, like Tommy John surgery for pitchers. Masters winner Trevor Immelman had wrist surgery last fall and hasn't had a top 10 finish since.
"I am not going to say I didn't ever check up," Kim said of the points. "I tried not to look as much as possible because it made me even more antsy. I am in a good spot.
"I need to be patient, keep playing, plugging along and trying to get better as the days go on."
Best case, he's got two months. Or, for those watching through a prism of red white and blue, we've got two months.