KAPALUA, HAWAII – JANUARY 04: Sungjae Im of Korea plays his shot from the third tee during the first round of The Sentry at Plantation Course at Kapalua Golf Club on January 04, 2024 in Kapalua, Hawaii. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Korea’s Sungjae Im fired a stellar 8-under 65 to match his tournament low score at The Sentry as his 2024 PGA TOUR campaign got off to a flying start on Thursday.

The 25-year-old Im hit nine birdies for a share of second place, one back of leader Sahith Theegala, as he showed his liking for the Plantation course in Kapalua, Maui once again where he holds two top-10s and a T13 finish last year.

Reigning FedExCup champion Viktor Hovland, two-time major champion Collin Morikawa and a resurgent Jason Day were amongst those who carded 65s to ensure a star-studded leaderboard in the first of eight Signature events which offers a US$20 million prize fund.

Im’s compatriot Tom Kim sank an eagle and four birdies en route to a 68 while debutant Byeong Hun An, also from Korea, pencilled down seven birdies against two bogeys for joint 19th place. Si Woo Kim returned a 70 for T37 while eight-time PGA TOUR winner Hideki Matsuyama carded a 71 for tied 46th position.

A two-time winner, Im expressed a tinge of disappointment following his 2023 campaign which saw him post nine top-10s and finish 24th on the FedExCup standings, his lowest since making his TOUR debut in 2019. He did win the gold medal with Korea in the team competition at the Asian Games in China last year, which has whetted his appetite for a third PGA TOUR victory following his last success in October, 2021.

“First event and round of the new year, it was satisfying overall,” said Im, whose nine birdies also matched his record number of birdies per round shot at the 2023 PLAYERS Championship third round.

“This course fits me quite well and I’m able to make a good result every time I come back. I was confident from the first tee. With nine birdies and one bogey, I wish I can play in this similar manner for the rest of tournament!”

Nicknamed the ‘Iron Man’, Im rarely got himself in trouble as he hit 16 greens in regulation and ranked fourth on Strokes Gained: Putting, gaining 2.25 strokes over the field. He credited a new putter for his success on the greens.

“With the fairways being generous, the second shot is key to every player. If I get the accuracy and distance right, we can make many birdies. With my accuracy today, I was able to roll in a few birdies. I also got a new putter at the start of the year and I’m happy with how I finished,” said Im, who ranks second in stroke average at Kapalua with 67.67 through 12 rounds.

“For the rest of the week, I’m expecting some winds. I need to keep myself into the game every single day and be patient. Then, I think the rest will follow.”

Indian-American Sahith Theegala, who is one of the rising stars on the PGA TOUR, made 10 birdies, including six in a row from the turn as he chases a second PGA TOUR victory following his breakthrough win at the Fortinet Championship last September.

He was especially pleased with his gain on the 12th hole. “I had a really gnarly 8- or 9-footer that I didn’t know which way it was going to break, grain was going all over the place. I just aimed it dead centre and tried to hit it hard and hearted that putt, and that settled me down a little bit more, because I knew 13, 14, 15 were very gettable too, so to make that putt was nice,” he said.

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