On a sunny day, you may catch first-year UNC women's golfer Stephany Kim riding around Chapel Hill on her signature moped.
Born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in the Dominican Republic, Kim has had a golf career that's led her on a unique journey to North Carolina, after playing in many different tournaments in her youth.
Adjusting to college is a challenge for any first-year, but it’s especially difficult when you are a Division I athlete thousands of miles from home.
Since joining the team, Kim is finding her place as part of a tight-knit community in the UNC women's golf program.
Shortly after she was born, Kim moved to El Salvador, and then to the Dominican Republic when she was three years old. She started playing golf for fun in Bonao at a golf course five minutes from her house with her dad and older brother.
At nine years old, she began to play in the American Junior Golf Association, competing in eight local golf tournaments a year in the Dominican Republic and four international tournaments in the U.S.
Her first international tournament was in Pinehurst, North Carolina, roughly an hour-and-a-half drive away from Chapel Hill.
“After the tournament, when I was 12 years old, my mom drove us to Chapel Hill, and we strolled around campus,” Kim said. “My mom really liked the North Carolina area because I grew up in the Dominican Republic and can’t tolerate the cold.”
Kim played in the U.S. Kids World Championship at ages 10, 11 and 12 to develop as an international competitor.
As she progressed in her career, she started to consider the possibility of collegiate golf. After winning the AJGA Dominican Junior Open tournament in the Dominican Republic in May 2019, this possibility became a reality as more coaches grew interested in her.
Her coach, Jay Overton, grew up in North Carolina and graduated from Duke, so he knew the area well and thought it would suit his pupil.
A collegiate golf player from the Dominican Republic is unusual because few golfers advance to that level, Kim said. But she was determined to defy the odds.
“When I played golf tournaments, I would talk to the other girls, and they would tell me they committed to different universities," Kim said. "So I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I could try to play collegiate golf.' My coach began to train me hard, and I reached out to the coaches of different universities.”
In May 2020, Stephany Kim committed to play collegiate golf at UNC.
New goals at UNC
Since becoming a Tar Heel, Kim said she has found Division I golf to be a step up from junior golf. One of her favorite memories has been playing in the team's first home tournament at the UNC Finley Golf Course.
Stephany said she played her best tournament so far this season at her debut in the Blessings Collegiate Invitational in Arkansas on Oct. 4-6. Although the course was tough and long, Stephany’s short game was important during her first collegiate tournament.
“Because I’m playing for North Carolina, I feel this sense of pride because I want to play well — not just for myself, but for the team,” she said. “I know that my score will count, so I try to give it my all and not feel doubt in any of the rounds.”
Aimee Neff, the new women’s golf coach of this season, noted Stephany’s strengths and the room for potential in her style of play.
“Stephany is fairly accurate and has an excellent short game: putting, chipping, wedges,” Neff said. “The biggest area of growth for her is adding swing speed, which is going to come from working out and training speed.”
Kim relies on her short game, especially her putter, during rounds, but she is also determined to add distance over the next year of her golf career at UNC.
“I want to improve my distance, especially with my driver,” Stephany said. “I lost a lot of distance during COVID-19, and I want to get it back during the offseason.”
She has already grown stronger and displayed significant improvement at UNC. Neff said she's noticed the work Kim has done in the weight room and with her swinging mechanics.
“Talking to her after tournaments in her reflections, she genuinely wants to improve and wants to help the team,” Neff said.
Kim is especially excited for the Oct. 29 Landfall Tradition tournament in Wilmington. It'll be a comfortable environment for her, she said, with its similar windy conditions to the Dominican Republic.
“The tournament yardage is not very long, so I don’t think I will be very disadvantaged compared to the other events that we’ve had,” Kim said. “I want to be inside the (top) 50 percent of the leaderboard.”
Adjusting to college life
The move to Chapel Hill has been a big transition, but Kim did not hesitate to lean on her older teammates for advice when she first arrived.
Deep into the season, she’s established a routine of balancing classes with practices. She works around her golf schedule to finish her homework. She even gets around campus on her own in a new way.
"I was lost because at home I had a car and my parents would drive me everywhere," Kim said. "But here, I have to learn to be independent, and so I bought a moped so I can go to the golf course and any other place."
Kim looks up to Natalia Aseguinolaza, a sophomore on the team who has walked in Kim's shoes before as an international student from Spain.
“Natalia is smart, determined, hardworking and she just got into business school,” Kim said. “She helps me out with my economics class and life in general."
Five of the nine athletes on the UNC women’s golf team are international students. Kim said she'll even speak Spanish with two of the international players, Aseguinolaza and Crista Izuzquiza, both of whom hail from Spain.
Luckily, the transition to this new life has been easier with supportive, inclusive teammates and coaches by her side. Neff said the smaller size and community among the UNC women's golf team can make the adjustment to the University easier to manage.
"Even though it’s a big school, it kind of shrinks when you think about around 800 student-athletes and nine golfers," Neff said. "Going straight into the season, there’s not a lot of time for her to get adjusted, but she’s doing a really good job of going with the flow, asking questions and figuring things out.”
Kayla Smith, a junior on the team who just earned her first top-10 finish at the Ruth's Chris Tar Heel Invitational, said she was impressed by Stephany’s positive attitude and willingness to act as a leader.
“She hasn’t strayed from taking a leadership role or speaking up, so I definitely think she’s a key attribute on our team,” Smith said. “We love to have her.”
Stephany Kim has certainly found her place and developed a sense of independence. Whether it's driving to the golf course or to her favorite restaurant, Franklin Street's Spicy 9, Kim and her moped are now a common sight on the streets of her new home.
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