Why Sungjae Im is Golf's Ironman
When Sungjae Im departed for the Tokyo Olympics in August 2021, he was preparing to feature in his 32nd tournament of the 2021 season.
This isn’t unusual for the South Korean, who has commonly made the most starts during a PGA Tour season for the previous three years.
To say Sungjae Im enjoys golf would be an understatement; the 23-year-old lives and breathes the sport and yet, he’s only just getting started.
His Early Days
Im turned professional in 2015 and during the ’16 and ’17 season, he plied his trade on the Japan Golf Tour, with a particular highlight being his runner-up finish at the 2017 Mynavi ABC Championship.
During that season, Im had finished 12th in the tour’s money list and 5th in scoring average - this brilliant 19-year-old was beginning to demonstrate that he wasn’t there to make up the field.
He would also feature sparingly on the Korean Tour, with a best finish as runner-up at the 2017 T-up GSwing Mega Open before travelling to America to test himself against the next crop of Web.com Tour hopefuls.
Unsurprisingly, he finished second during the qualifying stages, which included a sensational third round masterclass of 60.
His exploits during this time earned him a touring card on the Web.com (now Korn Ferry Tour), which is the favoured and most accessed route to the big leagues - the PGA Tour.
He won the very first event of the season - The Bahamas Great Exuma Classic - and became the second youngest winner to ever taste victory on this tour at 19 years and 292 days, narrowly older than Jason Day who won at 19 years and 238 days.
Not bad company to be part of, huh?
Throughout the remainder of the season, Im secured three runner-up finishes - The Bahamas Great Abaco Classic, the Knoxville Open and the Pinnacle Bank Championship - before finishing the regular season in style, blitzing his way to the WinCo Foods Portland Open title.
As a consequence of his ground-breaking season, the mere 20-year-old had finished the regular season at the summit of the money list and he was subsequently awarded Player of the Year.
Again, he was only just getting started.
Debut PGA Tour Season
Having gained access to the PGA Tour, the 2019 season provided the optimum platform to not only introduce himself to a global audience but showcased what exactly all the fuss was about: spoiler, there was a lot of fuss!
He led the tour in starts (35) and cuts made (26); he completed 118 rounds during that season, 18 more than his nearest competitor.
He finished within the confines of the top ten on seven occasions, with his best position of T3 coming at the alluring Arnold Palmer Invitational; he also finished 17th in Strokes Gained for the campaign.
He qualified for the Tour Championship and became only the 13th rookie to do so throughout the FedEx Cup era and to top off what was already quite the remarkable season, he was named Rookie of the Year, besting both Matthew Wolff and a certain Collin Morikawa to the award.
Im joined Stewart Cink as the only other player to be named both the Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year and PGA Tour Rookie of the Year in consecutive seasons after the former Open champion was awarded Rookie of the Year for the 1996-97 season.
Sure, he didn’t secure his maiden PGA Tour title but he did feature at the 2019 Presidents Cup - which America narrowly won 16-14 - and boasted a record of 3-1-1 which included the scalp of U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in the Sunday singles.
Just a quick reminder that at the time of that tournament, Im was the tender age of 21!
Yet again, he was just getting started.
First Victory & Masters Contention
The year of 2020 brought Im the success that his effort certainly warranted, after coming close on several occasions and failing to convert promising starts into victories.
The Honda Classic would provide the environment for his first taste of success on the premium tour, besting Mackenzie Hughes by one stroke, but it was his battle with Tommy Fleetwood that ultimately earned Im his win.
The pair couldn’t separate from one another and as the Englishman headed to the par-5 18th, he knew he needed to push for eagle - having trailed by a single stroke at the time.
Fleetwood, similarly to Im, was looking for his maiden PGA Tour title but having found the water with his second, he would only card bogey which opened the door for Hughes to finish runner-up.
While the wait continued for the Englishman, in the centre of Seoul the party had just begun as Im became only the seventh South Korean to win on the PGA Tour.
If you were unaware of his character prior to the win, he certainly painted himself in the correct light: dedicating his victory to all Koreans who were suffering from the COVID-19 pandemic through a translator.
This PGA Tour season was an interesting one, considering the entirety of the tour had become accustomed to playing with no crowds and therefore, unaware if their blind approach/drives had ended where intended.
Perhaps the most peculiar development was the 2020 Masters Tournament, which had been rescheduled to take place in November due to the aforementioned pandemic.
Augusta would be typically brimming with life; bystanders following the action closely while also enjoying one of the many benefits that only Augusta National can offer.
That year, however, not so much; there were no bystanders and generally, the atmosphere was lacking.
Nevertheless, there was a tournament to win and fresh off the back of his inaugural PGA Tour title, Im was ready for the next stage: he was ready for major championship golf.
During any other year, his final score of -15 would typically be enough to win the green jacket; since the advent of the tournament in 1934, only five players have recorded a better score than 15-under.
Five. Sole. Players.
Unfortunately for the recently crowned winner, he was up against Dustin Johnson, who was in no mood for mistakes, subsequently triumphing with a record score of -20.
Im became the first player from Asia to win or finish second in the tournament’s history and he co-led the field in birdies with 24 - Hideki Matsuyama would become the first Asian winner only six months later.
The Next Steps & Second Title
While Im failed to secure his second title during the 2021 season, his performances certainly did not go under the radar.
He played in 35 events last season and made 29 cuts, securing five top tens and finishing runner-up on one occasion (Sanderson Farms Championship).
The 23-year-old from South Korea had made $4,157,182 in tournament earnings during the 2021 season but if we break down his statistics, it becomes apparent where this exceptional talent excels.
His scoring average was 70.281 (30th) which is amazing considering that he is still in his infancy as a PGA Tour member.
While he might not be the longest off the tee (297.1 yards) his accuracy certainly makes amends for his lack of distance, finding 69.12% of fairways and ranking as 11th throughout the entirety of the tour.
He finished the season with a Greens in Regulation percentage of 69.08 and he averaged a birdie every 4.08 holes (30th).
Whilst we are on the subject of birdies, Im has broken a record that had stood since 1980; yes, you did read that correctly, 1980.
He made 498 birdies on tour last season, which was comfortably the most throughout the circuit and as a consequence, he became the first player to record more than 495 in a season since the aforementioned 1980.
Yes, he plays in more tournaments than anyone else but we have to applaud his stamina, not only playing in these events but travelling around America every single week - it’s seriously impressive.
He’s started the 2022 season perfectly, winning the Shriners Children’s Open by four strokes despite trailing overnight leader - and eventual runner-up - Matthew Wolff by three shots at the start of the day.
How will Im celebrate, you ask? By preparing to feature in the CJ Cup only four days later.
It’s important to remember that: to say Sungjae Im enjoys golf would be an understatement; the 23-year-old lives and breathes the sport.
And, for the final time, he’s only just getting started.
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