In the Year of Young Guns, Sungjae Im stands alone—and in anonymity—at East Lake

August 21, 2019
BMW Championship - Round One

Andrew Redington

ATLANTA — One of the tour's premier talents walked East Lake in anonymity Wednesday afternoon. Hard to do, given there are just 30 players at this shindig. When he passed a group of fans, necks strained to see the name on the bag, followed by a common chorus of whispers. Who's that? ... that's not Hideki, right ... wow, pretty nice shot. The man would nod as he made his way through, paying no heed to their ignorance. He doesn't even blame them.

"Hey, I'm surprised I'm here too," Sungjae Im says with a laugh.

In the Year of Young Guns, from Cameron Champ's auspicious start to the torrid summers of Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland, only one—Im—is standing at the Tour Championship.

Perhaps we are collectively numb to quick success from the youth ranks, but that's an accomplishment with gravitas. Im, who turned professional at 17 and is now 21, is just the 13th rookie to qualify for Atlanta in the FedEx Cup era.

"This wasn't my initial goal," Im says following a trek of East Lake's back nine. "In your first year, you just want to get your card for the next year. To survive, honestly."

The reigning Tour Player of the Year secured that fate quickly. Im finished T-4 at the season-opening Safeway Open and followed with top-10s in Phoenix, Bay Hill and Innisbrook. He was hiding in plain sight, never outside the FedEx Cup top 40 all year.

Im's relative invisibility isn't for lack of appearance. He will be making his 35th start this week, and his 118 rounds will be 18 more than the nearest competitor.

"Part of that is hunger, part is just trying to maintain the level of play I am at," Im says. "Consistency helps keep my energy up, to stay sharp."

An energy that begins early each week, as Im has quickly earned the rep as a range hound. Bryson DeChambeau is known for hitting balls well into the night, but Im is usually the first one on the practice tee, refining a swing that needs little adjustment. His takeaway is slow, wristy, more mechanical than natural, almost as if he's practicing a drill. The downswing, however, is smooth and fierce, producing some of the more consistent trajectories on tour.

Though fans might not be taking notice, those inside the ropes are. Following a pairing with Im at the Northern Trust, Joel Dahmen's caddie Geno Bonnalie took to Twitter to testify to the things he had seen.

"In my short three years caddying on the PGA Tour, we've had the fortune to play with some of the very best in the world," Bonnalie wrote. "Sungjae Im is the most impressive player I've ever seen."

Also paying attention are his fellow greenhorns. "Oh Sungjae, that guy is a beast," Morikawa recently told Golf Digest. "There are not many holes in his game."

The stats support Morikawa's assessment. Im ranked 17th in strokes gained this season—ahead of DeChambeau, Gary Woodland, Patrick Reed and Tony Finau—and 24th in scoring and 27th in sg/tee-to-green.

He's not flawless; his iron work needing offseason attention (81st in approach), and he can be a tad overaggressive at times. "The consistency is what I need to improve," Im said. "There were a lot of times I didn't play well this year [nine missed cuts], and the second shots were a big reason for that."

Conversely ... he's 21.

BMW Championship - Round Three

Sam Greenwood

The race for Rookie of the Year will likely come down to Morikawa and Im. Morikawa boasts a win and efficiency to his argument, but Im has history: according to stats guru Justin Ray, in the eight previous times only one rookie reached Atlanta, they grabbed ROY honors.

Humbling as that title would be, Im has his sights on another distinction: the International Presidents Cup team. Im, who hails from South Korea, finished 11th in the final team standings, is hoping a fall push will be enough to make the trip to Royal Melbourne.

"I met with [captain] Ernie Els at the Northern Trust, and told him I'll do whatever it takes," Im said.

That sentiment applies to his fame, or lack thereof at the moment, in these parts. Im is still learning English, relying mostly on his agent and swing coach as translators. That his rookie campaign coincided with Wolff, Morikawa and the like didn't help.

"All I can do now is play my best and wait," Im said. "But they will eventually know."

As he walked off the 18th tee, a fan eagerly asked Im for his autograph. Im smiled, obliged, then departed down the hill. The kid turned to his dad and asked, "Who was that?" The father offered a response, albeit a wrong one, with Im still in earshot.

Im didn't turn around. It's OK. Eventually, they will know.