Im Sung-jae possesses a deliberate and methodical backswing which often looks like it is in slow motion. The languid action to fully load for impact is in direct contrast to how the young South Korean has quickly ascended to the top of the global golf order.
During a challenging, pandemic-disrupted 2020, the 22-year-old rising star has stood out and delivered a bright ray of hope to Asian golf fans.
By grabbing a maiden PGA Tour victory at March’s Honda Classic in Florida, Im reinforced the belief that the state of the game in Asia is very much in safe hands.
Im－who was introduced to the sport as a 3-year-old when his mother gave him a plastic club－also finished as the leading Asian, in 11th spot, in the 2020 FedExCup standings.
Then he produced some Masters magic to improve on compatriot KJ Choi’s 2004 third-place finish－the previous Asian best－at Augusta National, showing his poise and unleashing his shotmaking ability to be bettered only by winner Dustin Johnson.
Im’s rise to prominence began two years ago, when he led the Korn Ferry Tour money list from start to finish thanks to two victories and three runner-up finishes. At just 20 years old, he became the circuit’s youngest ever Player of the Year.
The Korean powerhouse then produced seven top-10s to earn Rookie of the Year honors on the PGA Tour, and put the icing on a memorable 2019 campaign with a standout performance at the Presidents Cup, where he delivered 3.5 points for the losing International Team.
He also shone in the FedExCup Playoffs, coming close to landing his second title of the year at the season-ending Tour Championship. Following superb rounds of 68 and 64 in Atlanta in August, he entered the weekend only one back of leader Johnson before nerves got to him as he settled for 11th place.
He enjoyed a measure of consolation by dislodging Hideki Matsuyama as the region’s top finisher on the tour, a position the Japanese star has held every year since 2014.
“The fact that I was able to get my first win in just my second year on tour, and to also win on a tough course meant a lot to me,” said Im, as he reflected on his year.
“Winning early on in my career has given me a lot of self-confidence. It led me to believe that I can chase after that second and third victory and it has become a catalyst for me to work even harder out here.”
His uncanny consistency on the course has earned him a number of nicknames, including ‘The Machine’ and ‘Ironman Im’.
Mackenzie Hughes, who was beaten into second place by Im at the Honda Classic, described his final-round duel with the Korean as “man versus machine”. The Canadian said: “I’m the man, hitting shots in bunkers and hitting the grandstands, and he’s just like a machine. It was really impressive.”
Another golfer who has played enough with Im to know the Korean is the real deal is 2017 FedExCup winner Justin Thomas. “I think impressive is an understatement,” said the American. “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.”
Presidents Cup International Team vice-captain Geoff Ogilvy is another Im fan. “He’s like a machine. He’s the real deal,” ” said the Australian. “He’s the best package I’ve seen come out of South Korea. Easily.”
Ominously for his rivals, Im has vowed to improve next year based on lessons learned in 2020, including the late collapse in the FedEx-Cup Playoffs. “I was off to a great start, but not the rounds I wanted (after that). I was definitely a little disappointed but I’ll keep preparing and practicing. I did feel a lot of pressure and nerves. The experience was valuable and it will definitely help me contend in future events,” he said.
Other top Asian performances were delivered by Matsuyama, who enjoyed 15 top-25 finishes including five top-10s, and Zhang Xinjun, who became the first Chinese mainland golfer to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs thanks to seven top-25s and three top-10s. He finished 78th in the final standings.
Zhang was over the moon with his efforts. “I am so excited to compete with the best golfers and accumulate experiences,” he said.
“Trying to win is the objective of every player, and it’s the same for me. A small step leads to a thousand miles and what I can do is to focus on every tournament and every swing. I believe if I take small steps and continuously make improvements, I am closer and closer to becoming a PGA Tour champion.”
The writer is senior director of international marketing and communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.