|Lack of a bag sponsorship has at least given Anthony Kim's caddie a lighter load. (Getty Images)|
ORLANDO, Fla. -- Adam Schriber spotted an old acquaintance while walking the grounds at Bay Hill on Thursday, and as the man approached him with arms extended and palms up, the gesture was pretty easy to interpret.
Schriber's long-suffering star pupil, teeing off a few yards away, was off to his best start in months and seemed to have some of his once-characteristic swagger back.
Schriber recognized the man's signal immediately.
"About @#%!*^% time, huh?" Schriber laughed.
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He'd just read my mind, because I was the guy who approached him, animatedly shrugging from head to toe, with all the body language somebody could muster.
Blessed with as much innate talent as any fresh face over the past decade, Anthony Kim has been toiling for months on the cusp of oblivion as he entered this week's Arnold Palmer Invitational, courtesy of a sponsor exemption. If not oblivion, then he's certainly skirting the edges of irrelevance.
Incredibly, a player who won three times by age 24, including at premier events like Quail Hollow and Tiger Woods' Washington, D.C., event, had all but disappeared without a trace over the past few months -- just like many of his drives.
A former Ryder Cup star who had climbed as high as No. 6 in the world, Kim has made one cut in six starts this season, posted exactly three rounds in the 60s, and was a cumulative 21 over. He doesn't have a spot in the Masters, a place where he once had 11 birdies in a single round in 2009.
So when Kim, 26, started fast on Thursday, aced a par-3 hole and finished with a 3-under 69 that equaled his best round of the year, there was plenty of relief and gallows humor. At one point, he was 5 under and two shots clear of the field, prompting a mini-media stampede to see what was happening.
The explanation didn't require live eyeballs -- he managed to keep the ball on Planet Earth. After all, no prominent player over the past two years has labored more to get the ball in the short grass off the tee, yet nobody visited more lakes, traps, trees and backyard hot tubs, either. Kim admitted as much.
"I haven't been able to play golf with much confidence," Kim said.
Yeah, hitting "three" from the tee after pumping one into somebody's gardenia garden will do that to you.
Since Kim last won in Houston, two years ago next week, he has progressively fallen so far off the radar screen, it would have taken a chain saw and blasting caps to find him. After losing his bag endorsement deal, caddie Gary Matthews has been toting around Kim's old standup bag from college, with alma mater Oklahoma emblazoned on the side.
"It's because my caddie has to walk through so many trees," Kim cracked, "he needed a smaller bag."
No doubt, Kim has the panache and charisma that could make him one of the sport's biggest stars, but like the bag deal with a large Canadian bank that was not renewed, his game has been missing, too. The deterioration is hard to fathom. Just last fall, Kim seemed to be emerging from a funk, contending in a couple of events in Asia. Over the PGA Tour's winter break, noted swing coach David Leadbetter even singled Kim out for a big comeback year, without any prompting, after noting Kim had been tearing it up in Asia.
Thursday, Kim said that fleeting stretch was the result of a "Band-Aid" swing that didn't last. At this point, he might require a tourniquet, plaster cast or a body bag. It has been hard to watch.
Kim still makes a million birdies, but the mistakes have been positively self-destructive. For a player who chokes up a couple of inches on his driver, the dispersal of his two-way misses has made it difficult to play -- every player tries to eliminate tee-shot misses on one side of the course, at minimum.
How bad is it? He hit 11 of 14 fairways in the first round, but stands No. 178 on tour in driving accuracy at 50.8 percent. As shocking as that sounds, in 2011, he was dead last among the 186 players in the tour computer in that category at 56.99 percent.
"That's all we have been working on since the Honda [Classic]," Schriber said. "We have to get him some confidence of seeing the damn thing land in the fairway."
The Honda marked the only event where Kim made the weekend all season, finishing T42. He stands 211th on the tour in earnings, and the season is roughly a third over. Bay Hill leader Charlie Wi, another Los Angeles native, played with Kim on the weekend at the Honda and tried to pump up the slumping young star.
"Golf is such a hard game, you are going to go through some up and downs in your career, and if you don't, you're just not human,"' said Wi, who shot 66 Thursday. "It's how you come out on top is what makes a good player. So I shared that with him."
For once, Kim is darned near sitting at the top, moving into a tie for fourth with six-time Bay Hill champion Woods, Justin Rose and Korean star K.J. Choi, among others.
"I haven't hit the ball in the fairway in a long time," Kim said. "It seems like years since I stood over the ball on the tee and felt good."
A months after finishing fourth at the 2010 Masters, Kim had surgery on his left thumb, and for whatever reason, has rarely seemed the same since. His T5 at the British Open last year was his lone top-10 finish on the PGA Tour after January.
"Yeah, but that was more of a flash in the pan," he said of the British finish. "I'm trying not to do that because that's what I'm known for, I guess. I tell you what, it's not from the injury. I have no pain, I haven't had pain in a long time.
"People have been saying that I have pain without knowing. But I had so many bad habits ..."
Kim tried to return in time to earn a spot on the 2010 Ryder Cup team, sputtered badly, and ingrained some yippy tendencies in what was once a fairly simple, thoughtless swing motion. Lately, you can almost see him going through a checklist when standing over the ball, and Schriber was deeply relieved to note that Kim was taking far fewer practice swings Thursday, seemingly a sign that he was comfortable.
"He's finally owning it," Schriber said.
Somewhere out there, the wise guys are doubtlessly noting that Kim has become as wildly unpredictable off the tee as he is in public, where his party-hearty lifestyle and Las Vegas runs have often been dissected -- and probably cost him the lucrative bag deal with the Canadian bank.
But for now, it's the straight-and-narrow confines of Bay Hill that are paramount. This was a tiny step forward, albeit an important one.
"I haven't felt that comfortable on the first tee for a long time," Kim said, sounding relieved. "I have been working really hard at keeping out of my own way, and even though that should be the easiest thing for a professional golfer, it's the hardest.
"I've been running my head into a brick wall. So I moved away from the brick wall and now I can swing and make some birdies out here."
For the past month, Schriber has been shadowing Kim at tournaments, poking and prodding and trying to help him steer the ball in the fairway. Kim has been grinding away privately at his home in Dallas on the same thing.
"We've been working at home, hitting balls in my garage, chipping in my backyard, putting in my backyard, just to make sure that we have a good opportunity to win some golf tournaments," he said.
Who knows, maybe bashing balls in his own backyard will keep him from jacking them into somebody else's.