PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — South Korea’s Sungjae Im has played more golf than anyone on the PGA Tour the last 18 months, competing in 50 events and rarely taking a week off during that span. As it that wasn't challenge enough, add in the difficulty of being a stranger in a strange land, who doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t own or rent a home in the United States and literally lives out of a hotel.
It seems only fitting, then, that in typical ironman fashion, the 21-year-old’s first career victory on Sunday at the Honda Classic was hard work, too.
After birdies on four of his first five holes followed by three bogeys in the middle of his round, Im rallied with two more birdies over his final four holes and a clutch par save on the last to win by one over Mackenzie Hughes in what was an electric final hour at PGA National.
“I’ve been in this spot many times,” Im said through an interpreter. “Gaining that experience helped me on the last few holes. I knew I was one back going into the last four holes. I wanted to play aggressively and get after those pins.”
Never was that more evident than on the par-3 17th. Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Im stuck his tee shot over water to eight feet. When Hughes, who was playing alongside him, rolled in a 53-footer for birdie to briefly tie for the lead, Im didn’t flinch. He coolly holed his putt for birdie to push the lead back to one.
Then, on the par-5 18th, after chunking his third shot into a greenside bunker, Im got up and down to save par, while Hughes missed his birdie attempt after hitting his second shot left and into the grandstand, taking a free drop and pitching to 25 feet.
When Brendan Steele, who needed to eagle the last to match Im, and Tommy Fleetwood, who had started the day with a one-shot lead and needed a birdie to tie, each found water right of 18 with their second shot on the par-5 home hole, Im could finally celebrate. His final-round 66 matched the lowest score of the week and his six-under 274 total equaled the second-highest winning score since the event moved to PGA National in 2007. He was also the only player to birdie the difficult 15th and 17th holes on Sunday.
“I wasn't worried about being short because I took more club for that reason with it being into the wind,” Im said of the shot on 17. “I was just a little bit concerned about the back bunker when the ball was in the air, but I was just happy to see the ball hit the ground fast and stop where it did. That was a good turning point.”
In earnest, the turning point came much earlier for Im.
In 2018, Im, who was born to golf-crazed parents on South Korea’s Jeju Island, began playing at age 3 and grew up competing against Si Woo Kim, was named Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year after a season in which he won twice and finished second three times. The following year, he was named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year after finishing in the top 10 six times and being the only newcomer to qualify for the season-ending Tour Championship.
Then came last year’s Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, where Im had a breakout week. Along with Abraham Ancer, Im led the International team with 3½ points, which included a rousing 4-and-3 victory over reigning U.S. Open champ Gary Woodland in Sunday singles as the International team nearly toppled the Americans.
“Playing for Captain Ernie for the Presidents Cup this year was a huge experience,” Im said on Sunday. “Just comparing today’s pressure to that pressure, I felt a little less nervous than I did during the Presidents Cup, so experiences like that have really helped me and will help me moving forward.”
It helped, too, that Im had a familiar face on the bag this week for the first time: His interpreter and former Korn Ferry Tour player Albin Choi.
“He’s had some language barriers with other caddies in the past, and I just felt like we communicate better,” said Choi, a former college All-American at N.C. State. “Being a player myself and having played this golf course a lot of times, he wanted somebody on the bag with a little bit of experience. I accepted, and I’m glad that I did.”
How will the two celebrate? They’re not sure. Another tournament awaits next week at Bay Hill with more events to come for the foreseeable future, including Im’s first Masters in April.
“I'm not sure if I'm going to be heading to Orlando tonight or tomorrow night,” Im said. "Wherever I am, in a hotel or wherever, this is going to be one of the happiest nights of my life.”
He’s earned it.