Beating the Boys

Kim Paez won a PGA section tournament, becoming just the fourth woman to qualify for the PGA Professional Championship
Mark Baldwin
Mark Baldwin
September 14, 2023

When Kim Paez walked into work at Ping headquarters on Thursday, the morning after the conclusion of the Southwest PGA Championship, her colleagues greeted her with a standing ovation. 

Paez won the championship on Wednesday, finishing the 54-hole tournament at 6 under par at We-Ko-Pa Golf Club, in Fountain Hills, Ariz., and becoming the first woman to win the event in the section’s 66-year history. With the historic win, Paez, 36, earns an exemption next April into the 2024 PGA Professional Championship, which will crown the top club pro in the country and send the top 20 finishers to the PGA Championship. 

Paez joins Suzy Whaley, the president of the PGA of America, Taylor Collins and Sandra Changkija as one of only four women in the history of the PGA to have won her section championship. 

The winner of the Southwest section event is also eligible for an exemption into the PGA Tour’s Waste Management Open, but a PGA Tour rule, according to the section, stipulates that to claim the exemption, the winner must compete from the back tees. Paez elected to play from tees set at 85 percent of the distance of the championship tees. The Cholla Course played 7,211 yards from the back tees, and Paez played the tournament at 6,130 yards. The WMO exemption will go to the runner-up, Jesse Muller, the 2022 PGA Professional champion, who played in six PGA Tour events in the 2022-23 season.

Paez (nee Lorenzana) fell in love with the game at the age of 10, after her father took her to the Dominguez Hills Driving Range in Torrance, Calif. Thanks to a notable junior golf resume, she earned a scholarship to the University of California Irvine. At the end of her senior year, she won the 2008 Big West Conference individual title, a win she calls her graduation gift. 

After college, Paez advanced to the second stage of LPGA Q school, earning conditional status on the Epson Tour. Because she didn’t have enough status to compete regularly, Paez began working various jobs to make ends meet. She worked at the Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, managing its fitness center, and in customer service at Cleveland/Srixon. Paez also worked for a time with the Los Angeles County Junior Golf Program, where she developed a passion for helping junior golfers. 

“It was a free program and we’d teach at all the L.A. County courses,” Paez says. “We’d get these kids who normally wouldn’t be able to afford golf or golf clubs. We’d provide the golf clubs. I developed relationships with these kids and watched their games progress. And when I joined the PGA program and I started teaching again, I was reminded how much I enjoy teaching and helping golfers improve.”

Without the money to compete, Paez came to realize playing professionally was just one small avenue into the golf world. She decided to pursue teaching, and after five years of building her resume and waiting for the right opportunity, now recruits and fits the top amateur females for Ping. Paez calls it a dream job. When she’s not in the office, she gives lessons at Cave Creek Golf Course in Phoenix. Paez became a member of the Southwest PGA Section last December, with hopes of growing the women’s game. 

But Paez still loves competition and her game continues to improve despite not being able to practice as she once did.

“She seems to play better in tournaments than casual rounds,” says her husband, Nick, a professional golfer with status on the Asian Tour who caddied for his better half in the section championship. “When I caddie for her, I tell her a yardage and a spot to hit it and she can just perform.” 

Her short game was a little shaky despite having worked exhaustively on chipping from gnarly lies in the Bermuda grass during her practice round. 

“Man, it was deflating,” Paez says. “Because that grass really grabs your club. I think I chunked it like five times on every hole. We left that golf course and I was like, my God, what am I going to do?”

So she put in a call to a mentor who told her to focus on the process. That helped her manage expectations, and she repeated the mantra each day. Before each shot, she quietly repeated the word “committed.” 

“It was like a stamp to myself,” Paez says. “It’s me saying I’ve made a decision about what shot to hit and swing with 100 percent confidence.”

Playing in the first round of her first Southwest Section Championship, Paez wouldn’t need to worry about her chipping. She hit 17 greens in regulation and posted 2-under-par 70.

A few fortunate breaks and better putting resulted in a smooth, bogey-free 67 in the second round. Paez entered the final round at We-Ko-Pa tied for the lead with Mueller and Dennis Downs, the 2015 Southwest PGA champion. 

The sky across Phoenix lit up on Tuesday night with severe weather. Some areas around town received more than two inches of rain, flooding sun-baked golf courses throughout the valley. Courses only miles down the road from We-Ko-Pa Golf Club closed for the day. But the worst of the storms missed the Cholla Course, leaving conditions softer than in the opening rounds.

As Paez warmed up, she could sense the surprise in her competitors' voices as they congratulated her on an impressive second round. Paez, however, was not surprised by her performance. After birdies at the first two holes, she had the outright lead. 

Paez faltered on the par-3 3rd hole, making a double bogey, and would trail Mueller by two heading into the final nine holes, the easier of the two sides. 

“Jesse really wanted to win his third section championship,” says Bill Ibrahim, COO of the Southwest PGA Section. “I’ve seen Jesse now for seven years and I’ve never seen him not close a tournament when he had a lead like that with nine holes to play.”

Despite the shorter hole yardages, Paez was often out-driven by Mueller and Downs, leaving longer shots and more club for her approaches. She wasn’t paying attention to the scores or her position, but she hoped for a top-five finish to advance to next year’s PGA Professional Championship.

A lack of momentum stalled the final grouping, or perhaps infected it. Downs was struggling after a double on 8 and bogeys on 9 and 11. He fell five back of Mueller, and after bogeys at 11 and 12, Paez was four back. Mueller seemed to have control of the tournament, but then he made bogey on 13, 15 and 16. Paez birdied the 13th and 16th, resulting in a couple of two-shot swings. Like that, with two to play, Paez had a one-shot lead and an infusion of confidence. 

“I told her on 15 green when Jesse missed his par putt and she lipped out a birdie putt, that she would have taken the lead if she made that,” Nick says. “She wasn’t thinking about just finishing top five anymore. She said, ‘I want to win now.’”

Paez matched Mueller’s par on the par-5 17th, and the two hit their approaches on the difficult 18th to 45 feet. Paez putted first, rolling her ball up to three feet and calmly electing to finish. After she holed out, Mueller was left with a Hail Mary to force a playoff. When he missed, Paez was crowned. She looked to the sky and quietly thanked something higher. 

“I proved something to myself this week,” Paez says. “I proved I have the ability to play elite golf. It meant a lot to me walking off the 18th green and some of the PGA pros were there to shake my hand. At least to be there to watch me finish. It really meant a lot to me. I was teary-eyed. It really was special.”

After the post-round interviews, Paez turned on her phone. It has been blowing up ever since. 

“I wanted people to see, like, hey, a female can hang in there too,” says Paez. “To have these women tell me I’ve inspired them, I don’t know how to describe that feeling. It just feels so good to empower these other females. Words can’t describe how ecstatic I am. My heart is just full.”

“I love it because it’s going to give her confidence in her game,” says Nick. “She’s really, really good. She hits it like an LPGA player.”

Paez will get to choose her tees in the PGA Professional Championship. She’ll opt for the shorter tees again, which would make her ineligible to earn an exemption into the PGA Championship were she to finish in the top 20. Her first goal is to make the cut. 

“Only one female has ever made the cut and it was Suzy Whaley,” Paez says. “I would like to make the cut as well. If that means me playing forward, then I’m going to do it.”

Nick says his wife has no issue with missing out on the Waste Management exemption. “She’s putting her name down in the history of the PGA,” he says.

Images from Southwest PGA Section

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