Korea’s Sungjae Im cannot believe he is the new No. 1 on the FedExCup points list ahead of this week’s mega show, THE PLAYERS Championship.
Others though are least surprised.
The 21-year-old wonder kid from Jeju island surpassed Justin Thomas atop the ranking following his third-place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, a week after securing his breakthrough PGA TOUR triumph at The Honda Classic.
Inevitably, Im’s red-hot form will make him one of the favourites at the TOUR’s flagship event at THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass where he hopes to emulate compatriots K.J. Choi and Si Woo Kim who tasted victories in 2011 and 2017 respectively.
Other leading Asians in this week’s US$15 million showpiece include Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, Korea’s Byeong Hun An, Sung Kang and Si Woo Kim, Chinese Taipei’s C.T. Pan and Thai duo Jazz Janewattananond and Kiradech Aphibarnrat.
“It’s really cool. I can’t believe I’m No. 1 right now. It makes me really happy,” said Im, who will have the company of Gary Woodland and Bryson DeChambeau in the opening two rounds at THE PLAYERS.
Im’s stock has risen sharply since he became the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year after winning twice on the development circuit. Seven top-10s saw him become the 2019 PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year and he cemented his status as one of the game’s rising stars with a magnificent debut at the Presidents Cup in Australia last December where he delivered 3.5 points for the International Team which included a 4&3 drubbing of Woodland in the Singles.
Thomas, the 2017 FedExCup champion, has played enough with Im to know the Korean is the real deal.
“He’s unbelievable. I remember the first time I played with him at THE CJ Cup (in Korea), it was really windy, as is often is there, and the way he was hitting his drives, we’d have this huge crosswind and he would hit this little low bullet hold and when it would be the other way he would do the same thing, we’d have a downwind into the green he’d throw an iron straight up into the air,” said Thomas.
“I’ve never seen somebody that young with so many shots. I know it took me a while to learn all those and feel comfortable doing them in a golf tournament, for one, but he obviously is very comfortable doing it, and he definitely plays enough to get comfortable with it in a tournament.
“It’s impressive. I think every person that I know that has played with him for the first time walks off and is like, wow, he’s good. He knows what he’s doing. He can make his way around a golf course, and yeah, I don’t think we’re — anybody who’s played with him, I don’t think we’re surprised that he’s won, and I’m sure he’s going to win a lot more times.”
Im missed the cut by one shot at THE PLAYERS last year, shooting rounds of 73 and 71 which included a hole-in-one on the par-3, 13th hole and a double bogey at the signature par-3, 17th hole on day two.
While the FedExCup Playoffs, which rewards the season-long champion with a cool US$15 million, are still some five months away, Im, who is nicknamed “The Machine” is ready to bulldoze his way to more success.
“Hopefully I can maintain my position at the top. I don’t feel any added pressure. I’ve been playing well and I want to keep that momentum going,” said Im, who prefers to travel from hotel to hotel when he is competing on TOUR instead of opting for a home base in the U.S.
Im ground out a one-stroke win at The Honda two weeks ago and came close to a second straight victory at Bay Hill, finishing third and two back after battling for the tournament on the back nine on Sunday. The ever-smiling Korean is motivated as well by the support he has received from back home.
“The messages started flooding in (after Sunday),” he said. “I also got a lot of calls from people I know. It was really awesome to have so much support.”
He became only the third player in the FedExCup era (2007-present) to take over the No. 1 position before turning 22, joining the likes of Jordan Spieth and Joaquin Niemann in the exclusive club.
Ultimately, Im is dreaming of holding aloft the FedExCup at the season-finale TOUR Championship in Atlanta in August to put yet another exclamation mark to his stunning rise on the PGA TOUR.