For our Zoom interview, first-year Karen Kim sported a black Princeton crewneck — just one sign of her commitment to the Princeton Women’s Golf team. She called in from her new room in Princeton, New Jersey.
In June, she and her family packed up and drove cross-country from Jurupa Valley, California to their new home. But Kim is no stranger to pulling up the stakes.
When she was just 13, her family made the move from South Korea to Australia in order to boost the golf career of Kim’s older sister. It was during those four years in Australia that Kim first took up golf.
“My sister and my dad really worked hard in practicing, and growing up watching them practice all day long, I actually felt like I would rather study and pursue a career involved in education, rather than doing things from an athletic perspective,” she said. But after her family’s move, Kim started picking up the sport, and found that she enjoyed the balance of schoolwork, practice, and family time.
For Kim, golf is a family affair: her older sister now plays on the LPGA Tour, and her younger sister plays the sport as well. In Australia, Kim said, the siblings would wake up at 4:30 every morning to play nine holes before school, then hit the course again after school before coming home to study.
In the competitive world of junior golf, where many young players start before the age of seven, Kim admitted that there were times she felt at a disadvantage: “I felt that at some point, I was behind with the skills and experience.”
On the other hand, she credited her relatively quick development in the sport to athletic capability and the support she received from her family. Having witnessed her older sister’s experience training, Kim was familiar with what it took to perform at a high level. By the time she moved to the United States in 2018, four years after she started playing, Kim had compiled a list of junior tournaments she knew she wanted to compete in.
At one of her very first tournaments in the U.S., she placed third, qualifying her to play in other major tournaments. She continued to gain experience at tournaments such as the U.S. Women’s Amateur tournament, the ANA Junior Inspiration, and the Kia Junior Championship. Playing six to seven tournaments each year, Kim spoke fondly of those times.
“It was totally unforgettable,” she said of her experience specifically at the Junior Inspiration, an annual tournament that takes place a week before the ANA Inspiration, one of the five largest LPGA events.
At the same time, Kim can’t help but be disappointed at how her junior career ended.
“My summer could’ve been my last junior season before college started, but then all of the tournaments got canceled,” she said.
While quarantining due to COVID-19, Kim picked up baking and traditional Korean painting through her church in California. She continues to paint in New Jersey with her sisters. In between travel restrictions and incoming winter weather, Kim hasn’t had the chance to visit the golf course or practice range. Kim has been resourceful, however, in continuing her training.
As always, her sisters figure into it.
“We actually set up a practice area in our living room, so we’ve been practicing chipping and putting,” she said.
For weight training, Kim improvised. “You don’t have a lot of equipment at home, so I would use heavy bags.” She has also analyzed professional golfers’ swing videos to improve her game, paying close attention to the athletes’ movements and muscle usage.
Despite the individual training schedules, Princeton Women’s Golf is a team environment at its core. While its members are spread across the country, Kim is confident that the team members are forging strong bonds. They hold biweekly meetings and informal calls to get to know one another.
During one such meeting, a senior organized a quiz game using interesting facts about all the members. Kim said experiences like that make her excited for the team to grow closer.
“I think with all the team bonding and communication we’ve built as a team, I think that would push us forward to have much better achievements,” she said.
The opportunity to play golf and bond with a team was one of the reasons Kim chose Princeton. One of the top 25 female golfers in her graduating class, Kim says that for a long time, she wasn’t certain whether she wanted to pursue professional golf or education. Growing up, she felt pressure to choose between sports and academics.
“It’s like, either you want to become a doctor, or you want to become a professional golfer,” she recalled.
But in choosing to study psychology, Kim wanted to prove that student-athletes don’t have to sacrifice their interests in order to play competitively.
“[The Princeton Women’s Golf Team’s] driving force to succeed in academics and golf appealed to me really strongly,” she said. Between that and Coach Erika DeSanty’s enthusiasm, Kim said, she was committed to joining the team.
Kim finds college classes both challenging and invigorating. Subjects she’s taking this semester include chemistry, psychology, and math, in addition to her writing seminar, a requirement for all first-year students.
Balancing school and golf, she said, has sometimes proven difficult, especially around midterm season. And like any first-year, Kim has adjusted to a different workload and learning environment.
Nonetheless, school has been rewarding: “I’m actually really having fun, doing all the labs, [problem] sets, and lectures.”
Outside of her courses, Kim joined the Korean Student Association’s first-year board. She’s helping plan an event to provide virtual experiences of Korean culture for the larger student population. Additionally, Kim meets with other Asian student-athletes at the University to discuss their experiences.
Kim has resolved to bring her academic and athletic passions together with her career goals. After graduating, she hopes to practice sports psychology while continuing to play professional golf.
“I’m not exactly sure how I would manage to do that,” she said. “But I think I’m in the process of getting all the plans laid out.”