Slow and steady, Im withstands pressure at The Honda Classic
March 01, 2020
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Sungjae Im's Round 4 highlights from Honda
Sungjae Im didn’t always have that methodical backswing that’s led some to call him to a walking Iron Byron.
He used to swing the club at a more customary tempo. He was struggling with his ball-striking about four years ago, though, so he slowed things down as part of a drill. Happy with the results, he took this new swing to the course.
“It really helped. I felt like I could hit the ball where I wanted to,” Im said. “Now I feel like my backswing is getting slower and slower.”
And his stock continues to rise. Im, 21, has quickly ascended through the ranks since coming to the United States two years ago.
He led the Korn Ferry Tour money list from start to finish in 2018 and was named that circuit’s Player of the Year. At 20 years old, he was the youngest player to ever win that award. He was the PGA TOUR’s Rookie of the Year last year. And now he’s a PGA TOUR winner.
On Sunday, Im’s slow-mo swing stood up to some of the most stressful shots on the PGA TOUR. He shot 66, matching the low round of the day, to win The Honda Classic by one shot over Mackenzie Hughes. Hughes also shot 66 while playing alongside Im in Sunday’s fourth-to-last group.
Walking down the final fairway, Hughes realized that, even though he’d matched Im shot for shot, their Sunday duel was never a fair fight. He called it “man versus machine.”
“I’m the man, hitting shots in bunkers and hitting the grandstands on 18, and he’s just like a machine,” Hughes said. “It was really impressive.”
Im finished at 6-under 274 on a week that drew comparisons to a major championship. PGA National’s Champion course is one of the most penal places they play each year. Winds blew throughout the week, leading to firm greens and high scores. The average round this week was nearly two strokes over par. Only 16 players finished under par.
Im won with a hot start to the final round, making birdie on four of his first five holes. Then he stared down PGA National’s scary finishing holes. The two par-3s that book-end the Bear Trap, Nos. 15 and 17, were two of Sunday’s three hardest holes. They allowed just 13 birdies combined in the final round. Im was one of just two players to birdie both.
Sungjae Im tames The Bear Trap at Honda
He became the fifth player age 22 or younger to win on the PGA TOUR since July, joining Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa, Joaquin Niemann and the winner of last week’s Puerto Rico Open, Viktor Hovland.
Im moved to No. 2 in the FedExCup standings, just 135 points behind Justin Thomas. This was Im’s third top-3 finish of the season. He lost a playoff to Sebastian Munoz at the Sanderson Farms Championship and finished third at the ZOZO Championship. Im also impressed at the recent Presidents Cup, where he went 3-1-1. Those experiences helped him withstand the pressure of a tightly-packed Sunday leaderboard.
There was a four-way tie atop the leaderboard on the back nine. Tommy Fleetwood, the 54-hole leader, had a chance to win until the final hole. Hughes holed a 50-footer on 17 to give himself a chance on 18. Brendan Steele also shared the lead on the back nine before finishing fourth.
Im held them off with a series of clutch shots down the stretch. The first came on 15, where he hit a 5-iron to 8 feet. He’d been too tentative on that hole earlier in the week, but the right-to-left wind set up perfectly for his fade.
“I just felt like I had everything to attack the pin the way I did,” Im said. “I had the right club and was comfortable with the wind. I was aggressive and saw my shot, and I’m glad it worked out the way it did.”
He pumped his fist when his ball landed between the flag and water that guards the right side of the green. He hit the green from a fairway bunker on the next hole and made par. Then he stuck a 7-iron to 8 feet on 17. He dumped his third shot on the par-5 finishing hole into a greenside bunker but nearly holed the sand shot and made par.
“Even after winning Rookie of the Year and having a few chances to win, I really wanted to get that win,” Im said. “I had a few good chances that slipped away, but I'm still very grateful that I could win at such a young age, and to have it happen as fast as it did, I'm very happy and satisfied.”
He finished fifth in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green this week and second in greens in regulation. His ball-striking carried him to victory. He only needed to gain one stroke on the greens, ranking 38th in Strokes Gained: Putting.
This was Im’s 48th start on TOUR since the start of last season. That’s two more than anyone else. He doesn’t own a home in the United States, but he relishes his role as the TOUR’s nomad.
“I’m just so happy to be on the PGA TOUR and just to play golf,” Im said. “I don’t really look at it as work. It’s a chance to go out and do what I love.”
As for a post-victory celebration? Im didn’t know if he’d stay in South Florida on Sunday night or make the drive to Orlando, where he’ll play in the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
“Regardless of where I am, in a hotel or wherever, I feel like this is going to be one of the happiest nights of my life,” he said.