Korean star Sungjae Im will be counting on his straight-shooting game to contend at this week’s U.S. Open as he seeks to atone for the major disappointment of missing the PGA Championship last month.
The 24-year-old Im is amongst a strong line-up of Asian stars teeing up at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, including 2021 Masters Tournament winner Hideki Matsuyama, world amateur No. 1 Keita Nakajima and countrymen Si Woo Kim and K.H. Lee. Spanish World No. 2 Jon Rahm is the defending champion.
There is heightened anticipation ahead of the year’s third major for Im as he was forced to withdraw from the PGA Championship after contracting Covid-19 while at home in Korea for a domestic tournament.
“Yes, it was certainly disappointing not being able to play the PGA Championship. I watched the tournament on television and I was eager to get back out there and compete. I am very much looking forward to the U.S. Open,” said Im, who is a two-time PGA TOUR winner.
His brush with Covid-19 meant being out of competitive action for a month due to quarantine requirements but concerns of rust creeping into his game was quickly dispelled after he finished tied 15th at the Charles Schwab Challenge in his first tournament back and joint 10th in the Memorial Tournament presented by Workday two weeks ago.
What was also reassuring was the fact that his Strokes Gained: Tee to Green stats saw him rank second and 13th respectively at both events, attributes essential to navigate a U.S. Open which course set-up is notoriously demanding with its narrow fairways, shin-high rough and fast conditions.
“Honestly, I was a bit concerned my game would be rusty given I took a four-week break, but I did manage to play well and it gives me some relief,” said Im, who is currently ranked 15th on the FedExCup standings thanks to one victory and five other top-10s this season.
“My tee-to-green game worked favourably. One thing I regret is that my putting was not up to the level I wanted to but overall, I was satisfied with the finishes,” added the Korean, who ranked 64th and 29th in the putting stats in his last two starts.
With Y.E. Yang being the only Korean male golfer to date to have won a major following his success at the 2009 PGA Championship, Im is keen to join the major club and following a meteoric rise from the Korn Ferry Tour where he was Player of the Year in 2018. He was named Rookie of the Year on the PGA TOUR in the following season and made a memorable debut for the International Team in the Presidents Cup where he delivered 3.5 points against the United States at Royal Melbourne.
“There are only four major championships during the season. To be a major champion is way more glorious than to be champion in any other events, so there’s certainly added significance,” said Im.
“From a preparation standpoint, there’s not too much that is different but for sure, I certainly have more ambition. Every single player in the field have immense talent and through hard work and preparation, I am confident I will have a chance to contend one day.”
He has already shown his major pedigree by notching two top-10s at the Masters Tournament, a tied second finish in 2020 and a joint eighth in April. He will make his fourth U.S. Open appearance where a 22nd place finish at Winged Foot in 2020 is his best result.
Much of his focus this week will be to learn and master the nuances at The Country Club.
“I have never played The Country Club … therefore I have no knowledge of the course. U.S. Open courses are always infamous for its length, long rough and undulating greens. I know I have to be strategic with my course management, lay up when I have to rather than being overly aggressive on certain holes,” he said.
“To be on top of the leaderboard in a U.S. Open doesn’t always require a low score so, playing safe when I have to will be key. The week will certainly be a good test for poise and patience.”