Korean rising star Sungjae Im produced a magical 6-under 64 to charge into contention at the halfway stage of the TOUR Championship on Saturday, lying one shot back of in-form leader Dustin Johnson as he chases golf history and the PGA TOUR’s ultimate prize, the FedExCup.
The 22-year-old Im has shown some patchy form since the Return to Golf in June but on Saturday, he was back in blistering form with seven birdies on the card against a lone bogey at fabled East Lake Golf Club.
Im started the week six strokes behind Johnson in the staggered scoring tournament based on the FedExCup ranking but he has gained ground swiftly through some wonderful iron play which saw him hit 16 greens in regulation.
He leads the elite 30-man field in Strokes Gained – Approach the Green and ranks second in Proximity (26 feet, 9 inches).
Johnson rolled in a four-foot birdie on the last hole to retain his overnight lead with a second round 70 and leads on 13-under as he chases a first FedExCup.
The American started the tournament at 10-under after entering the season-ending tournament as the top ranked player on the FedExCup ranking following an 11-stroke win at THE NORTHERN TRUST and a runner-up finish at the BMW Championship, the first two Playoffs events.
Xander Schauffele, the 2017 TOUR Championship winner, moved up to third and two behind the leader following a 65 while Justin Thomas, bidding for a second FedExCup, is a further stroke back after a 71.
Asia’s other representative in the TOUR Championship, Hideki Matsuyama, carded a second successive 70 for a share of 17th place on four-under.
Im was delighted to narrow the gap on Johnson. “I was happy with my shots today. I hit a lot of fairways (10 of 14), so it made my approach shots a lot easier. My tee shots were more consistent, so my round felt more stable and I was more at ease. That gave me a lot of good looks at birdie, which helped me go low. I’m very happy with how it went out there,” said Im, who produced the low round of the day.
“I honestly wasn’t feeling very confident the last few weeks. I feel like it’s all coming back to me now. I’m having a lot of good momentum and I hope to keep it going for the next two days.”
Im will be aiming to secure more silverware following a meteoric rise in his young career. He was named 2019 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year last season, 2018 Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year and 2018 Korn Ferry Tour Rookie of the Year.
Becoming Asia’s first winner of the FedExCup will certainly put an exclamation mark on Im’s growing CV which included a memorable debut in the Presidents Cup last December.
“I haven’t been swinging the ball like I’ve been wanting to the last few weeks,” said Im, winner of The Honda Classic for his first TOUR title in March. “Starting last week though, my swing started to feel a lot better and I was hitting the ball similar to how I was hitting it before the quarantine. That allowed me to play with more freedom and consistency.”
A win on Monday will see Im bagging golf’s richest winner’s purse, a US$15 million bonus. It could also help him to finally decide on purchasing a home in the U.S as he has been living from out of a suitcase while playing on TOUR.
“I’m aware of the US$$15 million on the line, but I try not to think about it when I play. I know if I play my best the next two days, the opportunity will come. It all seems like a dream. Just thinking about it now makes me pretty happy. I would buy a house in the United States and save so that I can live a comfortable life in the future,” said Im.
Johnson was glad to remain in the driver’s seat despite some erratic play. “I was everywhere today.
Obviously, all in all, I managed it pretty well. To shoot even around here not hitting my tee ball very good is a nice score, but I need to drive it better over the weekend.”
Thomas endured a tough finish with a bogey on 18 leaving him three shots behind Johnson with two rounds remaining. He is trying to join Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods as the only two-time FedExCup champion after winning the TOUR’s top prize in 2017.
While he is second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee and third in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this week, he is last in the field in Strokes Gained: Putting. “Through two rounds I’m in a great place,” Thomas said, “so I just need to shrug it off.”
Defending FedExCup champion Rory McIlroy, who welcomed the arrival of his first child earlier this week, enters the last two rounds five strokes off the pace after a second round 71.