Korea’s Sungjae Im has his eyes set on a podium finish at Paris 2024 By Chuah Choo Chiang
LAUSANNE, SWITZERLAND - How is it that “Sungjae Im” has already become a household name for golf fans around the globe? Is it the patented backswing? The warmth-provoking smile? Or how he always seems to be in the mix on Sunday afternoons?
“He’s like a machine,” said International Team captain’s assistant Geoff Ogilvy in 2019, the year Im made his Presidents Cup debut with a 3-1-1 record, which included a 4-and-3 victory over U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in Singles.
Im, 24, has built a name for himself since bursting onto the PGA TOUR in 2019 after dominating the Korn Ferry Tour the previous season, in which he won twice and posted three runner-up finishes to win the Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year honors.
“He’s the real deal. As far as the package, he’s the best package I’ve seen come out of South Korea. Easily.”
Canadian Mackenzie Hughes had a front row seat when Im broke through for his first PGA TOUR title at the 2020 Honda Classic. Hughes, who finished runner-up, said he felt like “man versus machine.”
“I’m the man, hitting shots in bunkers and hitting the grandstands, and he’s just like a machine. It was really impressive,” said Hughes, a two-time TOUR winner.
Some commentators have given Im other nicknames, including Ironman due to the fact the Korean played 35 tournaments in 2019, the highest by any player that season. He repeated the same number of starts in 2021 and was matched only by Brian Stuard.
However, it’s not only about quantity for Im. In 133 career PGA TOUR starts to date, Im, who turns 25 on March 30, has amassed a total of 31 top-10s and 65 top-25s, which is an impressive rate of success. Aside from his two victories to date, he challenged Rory McIlroy for the prestigious FedExCup at the TOUR Championship in Atlanta last year before finishing second to become Asia’s best finisher in the history of the season-long race for the TOUR’s ultimate prize.
“I think impressive is an understatement,” said former FedExCup champion, Justin Thomas. “He's way beyond his years for how young he is. The shots that he hits, to have that much variety in your game and be able to hit it high, really high with spin and hit it low and flight it and hold it up against the winds, both left to right and right to left, is very impressive.”
Growing up on Jeju Island, which previously hosted the THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES, his golf-mad parents, Ji Taek and Mi Kim, introduced their son to the sport at an indoor facility when he was four. By eight, Im was beating his father and later in his early teens alongside national amateur teammate Si Woo Kim – who is a four-time PGA TOUR winner. The duo grew up idolising the same golfer, Tiger Woods.
“He was a god to us,” Im told a U.S. magazine.
With his growing ability and maturity beyond his age, Im joined the professional ranks when he was 17 and cut his teeth on the Japan Golf Tour. He amassed 14 top-10s from 51 starts during the 2016 and 2017 seasons, and his prodigious talents inevitably led him to the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018, and subsequently to his dream destination, the PGA TOUR, in the following year.
With seven top-10s, the Korean was voted PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year and put the icing on a memorable 2019 campaign with a standout performance at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, where he delivered 3.5 points for the International Team.
One of Im’s trademarks is his deliberate and methodical backswing, which often looks like it is in slow motion. The languid action to load for impact seems like a disguise to his ability to harness the power when he needs it. In 2021, Im proved to be the ultimate birdie machine when he established a new Total Birdies record with 498 birdies, breaking a 21-year-old record along the way.
Im’s second TOUR victory arrived at the Shriners Children’s Open in Vegas in 2021 where he fired a final-round 9-under 62 to win by four strokes. Fans are also getting used to seeing his name on leaderboards at major championships, with a runner-up finish at the 2020 Masters Tournament and a tie for eighth at the same event last year, markng his best major performances to date.
“This year's goal is to advance to the TOUR Championship as always,” said Im, who has featured in the Atlanta showpiece exclusive to the top-30 PGA TOUR players in the past four years.
“Another goal is to do well in major tournaments but most of all, I always want to perform steadily throughout the season as I have done over the past four years.”
He is also tipped to be amongst the leading contenders from South Korea to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games in Paris. At the delayed playing of Tokyo 2020, Im settled for T22 and he is itching for another opportunity to represent his country.
“Not everyone can participate in the Olympic Games, which makes the Olympics so special. I have a lot of records on the PGA TOUR and a Korean male golfer has never won a medal in the Olympics. I hope I can create a new record.”
Next summer, Im and his remarkable consistency will look to stand on the podium at Le Golf National following the conclusion of the Paris 2024 Olympic Games.
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