O'Meara played role in Kim's growth

1/7/2009 - Golf Anthony Kim

Turns out, they share more than the swoosh. A pretty high-profile mentor has also played a part in their stories, with plenty of unfinished chapters still to be written.

Nike adorns the apparel, and the company's clubs are prominent in their golf bags. And as Anthony Kim begins the 2009 season at this week's Mercedes Benz Championship with the expectation that he might -- emphasis on might -- be the best bet among today's young players to challenge Tiger Woods, it is interesting to note the two-time major champion who deserves some credit for helping both.

Woods makes no secret of the influence Mark O'Meara has had on his career, from living in the same neighborhood to sharing numerous practice rounds over the years. The world's No. 1 golfer was also inspired by the competitiveness that helped O'Meara win the Masters and British Open more than 10 years ago, soon after Tiger came on the scene.

The O'Meara-Kim relationship isn't as well-known, but so far has proven to be just as crucial. In fact, you could argue that it has been more important to Kim: Woods' father provided a solid foundation, and it was clear that Tiger was going to do just fine. But Kim had an immature side as a rookie that was holding him back.

"I wish I was a prophet or a guy who could call all the shots," O'Meara, 51, said recently when discussing his relationship with Kim, 23. "People are always asking me, 'Who is the next best young player?' And it's hard because there are so many good ones.

"But I played with Anthony last year at [Greg Norman's] tournament, and he was as impressive as anybody I've seen besides Tiger Woods. He has the skills, he has the tools, he has the talent. He has the right kind of attitude. He's pretty brash, maybe sometimes to a fault, but he's not afraid to back off. And he had a fabulous year.

"Certainly what he did at the Ryder Cup, winning at Wachovia in the fashion he did, winning at Congressional -- two world-class courses -- beating up the field pretty good. He's got the tools to be pretty special."

Easy to say now, perhaps, but O'Meara saw it more than a year ago, when he played with Kim at Norman's Merrill Lynch Shootout. Kim was coming off a decent rookie year in which he finished 60th on the PGA Tour money list with more than $1.5 million in earnings and four top-10 finishes.

But by Kim's own admission, he had partied too much and practiced too little. When he sought someone to blame for his issues on the course, he looked at caddies, rather than in the mirror.

"I just conveyed to Anthony, 'I'm not an expert but I've watched a lot and I've seen a lot ... but you've got as much talent or more than any other player I've ever seen besides Tiger, and I believe that,'" O'Meara said. "I laid it out for him. Unless you don't like money and you don't want to win tournaments, then maybe you continue down that other road. But if you really want to win tournaments -- he could win multiple tournaments a year and win major championships. That's how talented he is, in my opinion."

Those last words were said by O'Meara a year ago, before Kim had won anything.

Kim's first victory came at the Wachovia Championship -- where Woods was the defending champion but could not play. He also captured the AT&T National, where Woods is the host. He had eight top-10 finishes, finished sixth on the money list and climbed to 12th in the Official World Golf Rankings.

And there was that fist-pumping 5-and-4 Sunday singles victory over Sergio Garcia at the Ryder Cup, a win that highlighted Kim's skill and confidence.

"I feel like I've proven myself, and I need to keep proving myself," Kim said. "I'm planning on playing a lot better [this] year."

If there was a brashness before, Kim now seems fine with poking a little fun at himself. For example, there was that time in July when he was invited to take batting practice before a Boston Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

It seemed like a good idea then, but Kim overdid it, hurting his shoulder and altering his golf swing for a good bit of time.

"The worst part of it was that I didn't even hit any home runs," Kim said. "I rolled it to the [Green] Monster. It was pretty embarrassing."

He also related a story about how he hurt his jaw while riding a horse in November. And it wasn't because he fell off the horse. Kim banged his jaw against the neck of the horse when he went racing up a mountain because, he said, "I want to be in the Kentucky Derby next year. ... I've made worse decisions."

One of his best was seeking out O'Meara's counsel, and the results have been impressive.

"He's definitely matured," said Kim's caddie, Eric Larson, who began working for Kim last spring after first meeting him during the player's rookie year in 2007. "He's grown up a lot. He's saying and doing all the right things.

"I think he expected to come out here and win quick without putting in the hard work. I think during the offseason he put in the hard work, and it took a little while for it to kick in. Now it's kicked in and the confidence is there and everything else has fallen into place."

What remains to be seen is if Kim can be the long-sought challenger to Woods. He is nearly 10 years younger than Woods, who recently celebrated his 33rd birthday. And Kim has not endured the constant defeats suffered by many of Woods' peers.

Still, Kim has never finished ahead of Woods in the same PGA Tour event -- they've been in the same field 11 times.

And for all of his promise, Kim has competed in a grand total of five major championships -- Woods has won 14 -- with his best finish a tie for seventh last summer at the British Open.

Then again, Kim doesn't turn 24 until June. And while he remains a bit shy of 5-foot-9, he has done a bunch of growing up in the past year.

"I'm trying to improve on the golf course, but I'm trying to improve my image as well," Kim said. "It's important to me what my friends and my parents think. When my mom said, 'You could tone it down a little bit,' I'm probably going to tone it down. Really, that's all I'm thinking about, trying to play the best golf I can."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.