HONOLULU, HAWAII | While Matt Kuchar was being called to the tee for his Wednesday pro-am tee time at Waialae Country Club, Brandt Snedeker was stopping for photos with fans and Justin Thomas, three days removed from a victory in Maui, was heading to lunch. Sungjae Im stood unnoticed in the middle of the crowd around the practice putting green.
The 21-year-old pulled a bottle of water from a greenside cooler and paused during a transition from short game to putting work as the sun broke through during a break in the windblown rain showers that are expected to dampen the Sony Open this week.
Im’s relative anonymity – at least from outside the PGA Tour’s inner circle – may be short lived.
If the PGA Tour-watching public has only a vague sense of who Im is, his contemporaries know all about him.
“We call him ‘the weapon.’ He is an unbelievable golfer. The guy just does not miss. He’s so, so good at what he does.” – Abraham Ancer
They marvel at his Rookie of the Year season that included 35 starts and seven top-10 finishes in 2018-19. He topped that marathon schedule by going 3-1-1 in the Presidents Cup, reinforcing his growing reputation in the game.
It’s not just how often Im plays, it’s how he plays.
“We call him ‘the weapon,’” said Abraham Ancer, who teamed with Im in one victorious Presidents Cup match. “He is an unbelievable golfer. The guy just does not miss. He’s so, so good at what he does.
“He plays every week. He’s a machine. He’s young. He finally took one or two events off at the end of the season. I was, like, thanks man. You play so much. I can’t blame the guy. He’s absolutely killing it. He plays good every week so why not?”
Thomas has a sense of how good Im can be.
“I’ve played with him enough to know he’s really, really good, freakishly talented. Good at pretty much every aspect,” Thomas said.
Im turned pro as a 17-year-old and two years later he was playing the Korn Ferry Tour. In 25 starts, Im won twice, finished second three times and led that circuit’s money list, earning his spot on the PGA Tour.
Though young enough that he still travels with his parents and is learning English as he goes, Im made himself at home immediately. He took full advantage of the playing opportunities, generally taking weeks off last year only because he hadn’t qualified for a major (the Masters and the U.S. Open).
Having reached the Tour Championship last August, Im is eligible for all the majors this year meaning he will have to tweak his schedule if he intends to take a break or two along the way.
“Initially I set my goal to get into the Tour Championship which I did achieve so I’m very proud of myself,” Im said through a translator. “In the second season with this momentum, I want to perform well going into the majors. I get a chance to play in all four and hopefully I can get a win as well.”
Im lost the Sanderson Farms Championship to Sebastián Muñoz in a playoff last September but the runner-up finish kick-started his second season. He played six events plus the Presidents Cup to start the wraparound season and is in 10th place in the early FedEx Cup points race.
Winning is the next step.
“I wouldn’t say there is pressure,” Im said. “I did have a valuable experience in the playoff but unfortunately finishing runner-up but that will help me as I enter the season. I want to continue to play my game and see where it takes me but I’m confident.”
For Im, being a member of captain Ernie Els’ International Presidents Cup team further validated his rise to prominence. Like Joaquín Niemann, C.T. Pan and Ancer, Im’s performance against the American team in Australia was a further introduction to those who are still learning who Im is.
“I wanted to contribute to the team in my first experience as a rookie and I felt I delivered so I was very happy,” Im said.
Australian Marc Leishman has watched Im’s immediate impact on the tour and got to know him a little better at the Presidents Cup. The language barrier, Leishman said, is challenging in casual conversations but he noticed Im smiling almost constantly at Royal Melbourne.
“I don’t think even he realizes how good he is,” Leishman said. “He’s quiet but he has that quiet confidence as well. He knows he can hit the shots. He’s already really good but he’s going to get into that top 10 in the world.”
Around Waialae this week, Im said he’s already been congratulated by other players for his performance in the Presidents Cup and he’s been touched by it.
They’re going to see a lot more of him in the future because Im has no plans on throttling back his schedule. He may not play 35 tour events this year but Im intends to make more than 30 starts.
Asked if he ever gets tired of playing golf, Im understands the question without a translator.
“Why?” he said.
He’s just getting started.
Sungjae Im’s face was a fixture on the PGA Tour during his Rookie of the Year season; he made 35 starts and had seven top-10 finishes in 2018-19. Photo: Cliff Hawkins, Getty Images
We are sorry that this post was not useful for you!
Tell us how we can improve this post?