Korea’s golf star Sungjae Im hopes the comfort of sleeping on his own bed will help him challenge for the PGA TOUR’s ultimate prize, the FedExCup, when the TOUR Championship begins on Thursday.
The 23-year-old has stamped his mark by qualifying for his third successive appearance in the elite 30-man Playoffs Finale, which will conclude what has been billed a super season comprising of 50 PGA TOUR tournaments including six major championships.
With Im happily based in Atlanta after buying a new house at the end of last year, he can comfortably stay at home, enjoy home-cooked meals and take the daily 35-minute drive to the venerable East Lake Golf Club, which will host the TOUR Championship again.
“It is very comfortable to sleep at home,” smiled Im, who will be making his 35th start of the season – the most amongst this week’s field. “It’s been a year since I moved in. I had wished to play the TOUR Championship while commuting from home and now, it’s a dream come true to be able to do so.”
No Asian golfer has won the FedExCup since its launch in 2007, with Korean legend K.J. Choi being the highest finisher in fifth place during the inaugural year. The smooth-swinging Im finished 19th in the final standings in 2019 and was named Rookie of the Year, and then improved to 11th last season where he entered the third round one back of eventual winner, Dustin Johnson. The FedExCup champion will earn US$15 million, the largest prize in golf.
“I want to do my best. I want to have better scores than last year and the year before. The TOUR Championship is full of world-class players but I will make sure I do my best by competing well with them,” he said.
His form is peaking at just the right time. At last week’s BMW Championship, Im finished solo third which will see him starting the TOUR Championship on 3-under in the first round, some seven strokes back of current FedExCup No. 1, Patrick Cantlay in the staggered-start format which is par status for each player is based on the FedExCup standings following the BMW Championship.
He said the benefits of working with a physical trainer for the first time since February have also paid off and with his putter working like a charm in recent weeks, Im is hopeful he can launch a legitimate challenge again at East Lake.
“I’m seven strokes back and it’ll be important to think about being bogey free, rather than aiming only for a win. There are lots of hazards on this course, so I need to watch out for those but when I need to play aggressively, I will. Last year, I competed with the leader (in the third round) and I’m not going to pressure myself too much,” said Im, who leads the Total Birdies statistic with 483 birds to date this season.
While he has set himself a goal of winning at least one tournament per season – his lone victory remains the 2020 Honda Classic – Im reflected on how it may have caused him some undue pressure.
“After the Masters last November (where he finished tied second), my world ranking went up, so I was starting to feel some pressure. I felt like I needed to hang on to my ranking and this year was not easy. I felt pressured but I also tried to empty my mind. After I eased myself from pressure, my play became better. So, I think it is important to not push myself too hard but enjoy every event. This is one tip that I learned,” said Im, who is presently ranked 27th in the world.
“My shot-making has been pretty good since the Olympics. I had a hard time with the putter previously and since the Playoffs started, my putter and ball-striking have made it possible to advance to the TOUR Championship. There are some regrets as I had a few chances to win in the beginning of the season but I couldn’t make it. I did wish to win for sure, but my goal was also to advance to the TOUR Championship so I’m satisfied for now.”
Lining up alongside the cream of the crop makes Im proud, considering this is only his third season on TOUR. However, he does not consider himself as a world-class golfer despite his achievements which include 19 career top-10s aside from his lone win to date, over US$11 million in career earnings and a successful debut in the 2019 Presidents Cup.
“No, I wouldn’t,” Im said when asked if he considered himself as one of the world’s leading players. “I still have long way to go. When I see top-class players, they have a different level of play. I will try to keep working hard and shape my game, and then I can be on a similar level.
“It’s cool to have a chance to compete above all. In my rookie year here, I was so amazed by the players I got to play with. Now, I wish to be in Atlanta every year which is my new goal.”