John Deere Classic defending champion Michael Kim poses for a photo in front of the deer statue outside the TPC Deere Run clubhouse during his May return for JDC media day festivities. 

If Michael Kim ever loses focus and sight of his big goals, it would be easy for him to get lost in a large hazard of “what if.”

The defending John Deere Classic champion came from out of nowhere last year to record a stunning, record-setting runaway victory at TPC Deere Run for his first PGA Tour victory. His 27-under 257 total was eight shots clear of the field as he became the tournament's 22nd player to win his initial Tour title in the Quad-Cities.

Some of those first-time winners before him have taken that moment and used it as a springboard to major accomplishments — Bryson DeChambeau, Jordan Spieth, Payne Stewart and David Toms in that category.

Others haven't been able to do much after breakthrough victories here.

On top of it all, Kim is also toiling in the shadows of the vaunted “Class of 2011.” That group has always been identified as Spieth, Justin Thomas, Daniel Berger, Emiliano Grillo, Patrick Rodgers, Ollie Schniederjans, and Xander Schauffele.

You can even include CT Pan in that group as a 2015 college graduate from Chinese Taipei, who won this year's RBC Heritage Classic and is ranked No. 47 in the world.

Spieth also won his first PGA Tour event at the John Deere in 2013 as a 19-year-old. He added a second Deere title in 2015, and now has 11 victories including three majors. Thomas has won eight times, including a major. Schauffele’s three victories include the 2017 Tour Championship and Rookie of the Year honor. Berger has two Tour victories. Rodgers, who tied Tiger Woods' Stanford record of 11 collegiate victories, is still looking for his first Tour win but has had much more consistency as he has earned over $6 million.

It is a pretty formidable group.

And guess who else is a 2011 high school graduate? Michael Kim.

“There were, what, almost 10 guys from my graduating class, who not just got cards, but made an impact on the PGA Tour with their wins and their success,” Kim said during media day festivities and his first return to the Quad-Cities since his memorable victory last July. “I feel like at the beginning when guys like Jordan and Justin really started breaking out, you can't help but compare yourself to them and emulate their success.

“At the end of the day, I've gotten pretty comfortable that I just need to focus on my own game. What they do is great and I'm excited for them. But I fully believe in myself that I can do the same and look forward to battling against them our entire career.”

And he has the proof to think that's possible even though recent results suggest otherwise.

“I played against them in college,” Kim said of that esteemed group. “I beat a lot of them in college.”

And had a collegiate career that stacked up to all of them.

Kim was the college player of the year at California-Berkeley, winning both the Jack Nicklaus Award and the Haskins Award in 2013. That was the same year he was low amateur at the U.S. Open at Merion, tying for 17th. He turned pro later that year.

But in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world of professional golf, Kim has been the forgotten man in that class.

Other than last year's JDC victory and a T35 at the following week's Open Championship at Carnoustie, there have been more missed cuts than checks cashed.

Even personal validation was hard to come by in some regards.

“It is a results-oriented business and profession,” admitted Kim. “But at the end of the day, I need to improve on what I need to improve. I can't look at Jordan and all the success that he's been having and live up to those expectations or anything like that. I've done a good job of trying to focus on my game and trying to get my game better and not looking at someone else's.”

There were a number of tangible benefits to Kim's JDC victory, not to mention the $1 million winner's check and bronze buck trophy. There was the spot in last year's British Open and the invite to this year's Masters, which he said left him in awe.

But possibly the best thing Kim scored from the win was time. His two-year exemption has allowed him to make changes that will allow him sustained success and not just catch lightning a week here or there.

Believe it or not, he came to the Quad-Cities last year on a string of missed cuts as he had switched coaches (to John Tillery from James Oh) and was trying to rebuild a new swing.

“I have a pretty looking swing aesthetically, but maybe it wasn't as functional as I would have liked,” he admitted. “Looking back on the swing I had two years ago and the changes I made, you see a pretty big difference.

"I still have a ways to go, but the main improvements have been made. I still have to make minor changes.”

While those on the outside looking at Kim's results may not see many improvements, Kim said he “absolutely” can feel those changes and likes the direction his game is headed.

“Last year, it was a brief stretch where I had a pretty hot run.” he said. “Now, I feel like I can extend that for more than a month and hopefully for a year and many years to come.”

And also become a pertinent participant when the talk turns to the vaunted PGA Tour “Class of 2011.”



Tom is a sports reporter for Dispatch-Argus-QCOnline.com.

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