Road Warrior: Sungjae Im discusses his nomad life on the PGA Tour
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Perhaps the best way to describe Sungjae Im’s current life is that he spends the vast majority of his time in the United States, even though does not have a home base in the United States. He lives on the road. Literally.
That’s right. Despite playing 29 PGA Tour events in the United States in 2019 (and a tour-most 35 overall), the reigning Rookie of the Year does not own a house in America. Nor he does rent an apartment, share a flat or anything like that. Nope—the 21-year-old South Korean simply moves from hotel to hotel, content to live a simple life of eating, sleeping and playing golf.
And playing it quite well. After finishing first on the Korn Ferry Tour money list in 2018, Im had seven top-10 finishes in his debut season on the PGA Tour in 2019 and was the only newcomer to make the Tour Championship. His run of consistent play earned him a captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup, where he went 3-1-0 and beat U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in singles at Royal Melbourne in December.
We caught up with golf’s busiest player at last week’s Genesis Invitational to discuss adjusting to America, life on Tour and whether he has plans to get his own place anytime soon (hint: he doesn’t).
Note: This interview was conducted through an interpreter and has been lightly edited for clarity.
When did you start playing golf?
I was holding the club when I was 3, but I didn’t really start playing until about 7. Both my parents played golf.
You turned pro in 2015 as a 17-year-old, then played a few seasons on the Japan Tour. When did you decide you wanted to make the move to America?
It really wasn’t until I found out I was exempt into second stage of Web.com Tour Q school [in 2017]. Second stage was my first time ever being in, or playing golf in the United States.
What has your adjustment been like to America? The culture, the language?
I’m living hotel to hotel, and I do my best to find Korean restaurants in every city. Plus, it’s not my first time being on tour in a foreign country. I played two years on the Japanese Tour, and it was the same situation.
How do the Korean restaurants in America hold up to the real thing?
Almost the same!
If you don’t have a place in the U.S., what do you do on off weeks? For instance, you didn’t play the week of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am—so what did you do?
I spent two days in Palm Springs practicing at PGA West, then after that I came to L.A. a few days early. It’s hotel to hotel, and I have to find a golf course that will host me for the week.
Do you have any desire to buy a place in the U.S.?
I prefer hotel to hotel.
After the season, I go back home. So when I go back home, I’ll stay for a couple months. I just prefer to be in hotels here, when I’m working, then I get comfortable at home after the season.
Did anything surprise you about playing in the U.S.?
I was surprised to play with all the guys I grew up watching on TV. That was definitely a bit shocking, and then just the purses over here are nothing like I played for before. The whole thing just feels very prestigious. The very best.
I don’t think you’ve played with Tiger yet, but have you met him?
Yeah, never played with him before, but I’ve said hello here and there at different tournaments. I finally properly met him at the Presidents Cup.
Speaking of the Presidents Cup, you have quite the debut. What was that experience like?
It was so different. The only thing I cared about that week was how I could help the team. And I think in a weird way that actually helped me focus more on my play.
Do you have friends you hang out with on tour?
It’s interesting, in Korean culture you don’t really hang out with guys who are a different age. I have a lot of acquaintances, but not many guys of the same age. Joaquin Niemann—he’s the same age as me, so I feel comfortable around him. But I mostly just hang out in the hotel.
You must be pretty good at spending time alone then.
Well, my parents travel with me to every event. We get two hotel rooms. One for them, one for me.
You’ve won the rookie of the year and had a nice start to your career, but you’re still looking for that first win. What needs to change for you to get over the hump?
I honestly think there’s an aspect of luck. Even though the guys who win are the best players, I can’t help but think they have some luck on their side when they win. And also patience. I need to be a bit more patient.
Have you bought yourself anything big with your earnings?
I bought my mom a bag.
An expensive bag?
A nice bag!
I guess you wouldn’t need a car then, going from hotel to hotel.
Uber, Uber, Uber.
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