KUALA LUMPUR: If Im Sungjae was to appear in a Marvel blockbuster movie, he could easily slip into the role of any superhero.
Such has been the Korean phenom’s explosive rise in the game that his peers and commentators on the PGA TOUR have given him nicknames such as “Ironman”, “The Beast” and “The Machine.”
This month, the 21-year-old Im will have another opportunity to reinforce his growing reputation when he makes his debut for the International Team against the United States Team in the Presidents Cup at The Royal Melbourne Golf Club.
Im, picked as one of Captain Ernie Els’ four wildcard selections, could well play a starring role as the new “Smiling Assassin”, a moniker given previously to Shigeki Maruyama when the Japanese star smiled and swept all before him to go 5-0-0 at Royal Melbourne in 1998, which helped the International Team secure its lone victory to date. It could prove to be a good omen for Im, who was born in 1998.
Captain Els is confident his Korean pick will rise to the occasion and unleash his firepower on the American juggernaut, led by playing captain Tiger Woods. During the 2018-19 PGA TOUR Season, Im finished an impressive 19th on the FedExCup points list following seven top-10s, thanks largely to 480 birdies and 18 eagles, the most recorded by any player.
“He's had one hell of a year, lots of top-10s,” enthused Els.
“Played his way into the team with his consistency and showing a lot of spirit with the other players. I just loved the way he approached the game … you know, very cool, calm, collected. I definitely wasn't that good when I was 20, 21 years old but these kids, these guys are world-class players. I’m not afraid to choose rookies and I'm not afraid to play them.”
Im’s English is presently limited and like Maruyama, he overcomes the language barrier by constantly smiling. However, behind the facade, Im is tenacious and possesses an in-built determination to succeed in the game.
Growing up on Jeju Island, which hosts the PGA TOUR’s only event in Korea, THE CJ CUP @ NINE BRIDGES, his golf-mad parents, Ji Taek and Mi Kim, introduced their son to the sport at an indoor facility when he was four. By eight, he was beating his father and later in his early teens with national amateur teammate Si Woo Kim – the 2017 PLAYERS Champion – they both grew up idolising the man who will lead the U.S. Team at Royal Melbourne, Woods.
“He was a god to us,” Im told Golf.com.
At a tender age of 17, Im joined the professional ranks and cut his teeth on the Japan Tour where he amassed an impressive 14 top-10s from 51 starts during the 2016 and 2017 seasons. His talents inevitably led him to the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 where he dominated with two victories and three runner-up finishes to win the money list. Not only was he voted Rookie of the Year and Player of the Year, Im achieved his American dream by securing his PGA TOUR card.
“In your first year, you just want to get your card for next year. To survive,” said Im, who was the only rookie to qualify for the 2019 TOUR Championship. “I’ve played better than expected. I could give myself nine out of 10 (score).”
Jordan Spieth, winner of the 2015 FedExCup and a prodigy himself, expects Im to remain a talking point for a very long time in the game. “He worked his way up from a very young age through the Korn Ferry Tour and now the PGA TOUR seems easy for him which is unusual as generally there is more of a learning curve. But he seems to be ahead of the curve,” said Spieth.
Kevin Na, a four-time PGA TOUR winner added: “I can see him as being the next best Korean player.”
Im, ranked 33rd in the world at the time of writing, hopes to end a memorable 2019 campaign with a rare Presidents Cup victory for the International Team. The U.S. has won the last seven consecutive editions. “It has always been a dream of mine to make the Presidents Cup, so I’m so happy to have been chosen as a captain’s pick. I really want to beat the U.S. Team,” he said.
He recalls watching on TV the 2015 Presidents Cup in Incheon, Korea where home hero Sangmoon Bae was involved in dramatic final singles match against Bill Haas, which went down the wire and ended in a narrow 1-point victory for the Americans.
“It motivated me a lot to make the International Team one day,” he said. “I know that if I play to my capabilities and have a good performance, I can definitely contribute to the team.”
Im thinks he can establish solid partnerships with Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama or fellow rookie Joaquin Niemann of Chile. “I’ve played a lot with Joaquin and we have a similar style of play. He’s very accurate and I feel like the way we execute our short game is similar. With Hideki, we both have unique swings, so maybe we can get in the heads of the American players if we were to be paired together!” laughed Im.
* Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, communications of the PGA TOUR and is based in Kuala Lumpur.