By Chuah Choo Chiang
True genius in golf is often rare and few superlatives accurately describe Korea’s Sungjae Im.
The 24-year-old has morphed from a prodigious talent into a world-class golfer and two-time PGA TOUR winner and will inevitably be one of the vital cogs in Captain Trevor Immelman’s underdogs International Team, who will be determined to dethrone a powerful United States Team in the Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina starting September 22 to 25.
Three years ago, Im was a captain’s pick by Ernie Els and he stood out like a seasoned campaigner as he used Royal Melbourne as a playground to cement his rising star status by delivering an impressive 3.5 points in his team’s narrow 16-14 loss.
Im has earned his team’s place on merit this time around and Immelman, who was one of Els’ assistants, knows exactly the kind of firepower and influence the Korean Ironman can deliver at Quail Hollow. More importantly, Im has also proven he can team up with any player, having played with three different partners in the Fourball and Foursomes sessions at Royal Melbourne.
Aside from being well known for his ball-striking prowess – he ranked a career high ninth in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green in the recent season – Im is also a mean Birdie Machine, an attribute that is vital in match play. He established a new TOUR record in 2021 for most birdies in a season with his haul of 494, breaking a 21-year-old record along the way.
Canada’s Adam Hadwin, who partnered Im to win a Fourball match against Patrick Cantlay-Xander Schauffele in Melbourne, holds the utmost respect for the supremely talented Korean. “Sungjae is such an unbelievable player. I feel like he might even be steadier than me. He doesn’t miss too many shots. Sungjae makes it so easy to play with,” said Hadwin, who unfortunately missed out on the team this year.
When the International Team arrived at Royal Melbourne, a majority of players opted to only walk the golf course on the Monday of the week as winds were swirling and would not prevail in the same manner for the rest of the week. Australia’s Adam Scott, who will make his 10th straight appearance in Charlotte, shared an anecdote that provided a further glimpse as to how good Im truly is.
“It was so windy that I certainly didn’t even think about touching any of the holes because I didn’t want to destroy my confidence,” Scott recalls. “Sungjae was the only guy who went out there to play, so we ended up walking out and watching him play a few holes, and even in a 25 mile-an-hour wind, he was just fairway, green, fairway, green, and it was a bit like Iron Byron, like a machine,” added the Aussie in reference to golf legend Byron Nelson who was famous for his consistent iron play.
Gary Woodland was the rather unfortunate American drawn to face Im at his brilliant best in the Singles, and was outclassed in a 4 & 3 defeat. “It was stressful. I played great and got steamrolled,” bemused the former U.S. Open champion.
Im grew up playing golf on Jeju island, thanks to his parents’ encouragement, and his rise in the professional ranks has no doubt been meteoric. After representing the Korean national team, he played on the Korean Tour and Japan Golf Tour during his teens before finding instant success on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 where he was named Player and Rookie of the Year, thanks to two victories and multiple top-10s.
His transition onto the elite PGA TOUR was as smooth as his full-flowing golf swing as he made it into the top-30 TOUR Championship in 2019, earned Rookie of the Year honours and also a wild card for the Presidents Cup. His first team experience has since stirred the fire in Im’s belly in his attempt to help the Internationals secure what would only be a second win in the series since 1994. The International Team will no doubt start as underdogs.
“If we can win the Cup, this will become part of my career,” said Im, who finished tied second in the recent FedExCup final standings – the best by an Asian golfer. “There is only one time when the International Team won, so if I could be part of the team when we win the next time, it will mean a lot. I will make sure we try our best.”
Im has no doubt the camaraderie and bond that have been built and strengthened over the last few years will serve the team’s quest to finally upstage the Americans. The International Team’s new logo, a shield which sees the various international flags incorporated for each team member, has also been a unifier for a squad which is made up from multi-countries across the globe.
He will not trade his experience in 2019 for anything in the world, despite the tough loss to the U.S., led then by inspirational playing captain Tiger Woods, who secured a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the final day’s Singles. The Korean star intends to use the bitter defeat to fire him up instead.
“Everyone cheering as one team is the most special moment for me from 2019,” said Im. “It was my first Presidents Cup and it was a pretty impressive week for me and a great experience. I’m looking forward to the next one. Quail Hollow is not easy but our International Team will try their best and I will try my best. We have become much closer and comfortable with each other.”
A victory for the International Team will no doubt be cherished by Im and the rest of the world which will make the trek to Quail Hollow, and he knows a successful week will also be atonement for Els. “Ernie led our team so well in 2019 … we had a great team spirit and played as one team. And the International Team logo gave us motivation and helped unite us,” he said.
“Before the Single matches, we were leading but unfortunately, we couldn’t hold the trophy at the end. We definitely had hopes to win and the match was pretty intense and tight. I hope we can do better and win the next one.”
Note: The writer is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.