ARDMORE, Pa. — Michael Kim did what most 19-year-old amateurs two shots out of the lead in the third round of the US Open would probably do. He looked at every scoreboard he could find, just to see his name.
Visual confirmation of Kim’s unlikely standing for part of Saturday afternoon will add to the war chest of memories he’ll bring home with him to Del Mar, Calif. But looking back, it might not have been the best thing to do, because he still had more holes to play, and the closing stretch at Merion Golf Club can cruelly dash even an innocent teenager’s dream.
“Yeah, kind of went through that what-if situation in my head: ‘What if I won?’ or ‘What if I did this?’ It was cool,” Kim said. “I tried to snap back out of it, but I hit an awful shot on the next hole.”
Predictably, Kim’s play slipped after he let his mind wander. He bogeyed No. 16, took a double bogey on No. 17, and bogeyed the 18th hole. In less than an hour, the skinny sophomore at California went from being tied for second at even par to 4 over, which still left him in 10th. After shooting a third-round 71, he’s five shots behind Phil Mickelson, one of the names he kept seeing on the big boards so close to his. That brush with greatness came during a six-hole back-nine stretch that saw Kim make four birdies and take Merion by storm.
“I kept looking at the leader board, not because I wanted to know how I was doing in the tournament, but it was so cool to see my name next to those names like Mickelson, [Luke] Donald, [Charl] Schwartzel,” Kim said. “It was just an incredible feeling.”
He couldn’t duplicate the feat of Jim Simons, who led after 54 holes as an amateur when the US Open was held at Merion in 1971. Hard as it will be, Kim will try to match Simons on Sunday; 1971 was the last time an amateur has finished in the top five at the US Open.
Kim had modest goals when he arrived, even though he recently won the Jack Nicklaus Award as the best player in college golf. A first-team All-American, he was one of three Golden Bears to qualify for the US Open, which he did in Georgia, shooting 66-67 at a sectional qualifier.
“Just wanted to make the cut,” Kim said. “I thought that would be a pretty good week.”
Kim made the smart decision to hire a longtime Merion caddie, LaRue Temple, who’s helped with sight lines and reading greens. With so many members, fellow caddies, family, and friends in the gallery, Temple has been getting just as many cheers as Kim, if not more.
He’s even gotten used to the pace, which at Merion is notoriously fast. But not this week.
“The joke with us is when people are playing and they’re playing slow, and they’re grinding every shot, we say, ‘Come on, dude, this isn’t the US Open here,’ ” Temple said. “Well, this is the US Open.”
So Kim and Temple will press on one more day, an unlikely pair who have spun one of the week’s best stories so far. Kim has a five-shot lead on Cheng-Tsung Pan (75) for low amateur. He went on a birdie tear starting at the 10th, adding three more at Nos. 12, 13, and 15. That’s when it became difficult for Kim to ignore what was happening.
“I was pretty calm the entire day. On 16 I got a little nervous, a little too excited,” Kim said. Still, “it was a great day and it’s been a great week. I’m just looking forward to tomorrow.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.