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Sungjae Im's journey to leading the Masters

April 08, 2022

Andrew Hetherington

Editor's Note: This story originally ran in the March, 2021 issue of Golf Digest Magazine.

I remember loving golf since I was little, growing up in South Korea, winning little games, how fun golf was. But more than anything, I hated losing. My parents played, and by age 4, I would mimic their swings with objects around the house. When I was 9, I was good enough to enter my first tournament. I had never broken 90 to that point, but that day I shot 77. I remember being super focused and nervous at the same time. The way those two feelings came
together, it almost felt spiritual, and it resulted in a concentration I had never experienced before. After feeling that, I knew I could be a good player. I knew I wanted to play golf professionally. I never really thought about being anything else.

I played occasionally with my parents, but mostly with my coach and his friends. I kept improving and was named in the South Korean National team when I was 16. I received an exemption into one of the Japan Tour events, so I was able to play my first pro event there. I came back, gave up my national team spot and turned professional. I was 17.

That first season in Japan, it was a miracle that I kept my card. Mentally, I wasn’t prepared for the pressure and the number of tournaments. I realised I had gone through that season without having any confidence in how I play golf. The next season, I chose to believe in my style of play – steadiness, consistency – and it worked. I finished in the top 15 on the moneylist, and that was enough to exempt me into the second stage of Q-school.

I qualified for the 2018 Web.com [now Korn Ferry] Tour season, and it couldn’t have started off better. The first tournament, I won, and the second tournament, I was runner-up. In just the first two events, I had secured my PGA Tour card. I set a new goal to try to be the money-winner for the season – which would mean I could play all the events on the PGA Tour, except the Majors. I achieved that as well.

I felt ready for the PGA Tour. Being able to practice with players I’ve admired was exciting and overwhelming. Tiger was the person I always wanted to see up close, see his swing, his ball flight. I was speechless the first time I saw him. He has such a great imagination, and he can hit any shot he wants. He plays with so much confidence. He has his own glow around him.

A few events into the 2019 season, I lost in a playoff at the Sanderson Farms Championship. I thought I had won before the tournament was over. I just lost my focus at the end. Sebastian Munoz drained a difficult putt to force a playoff, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. When I had my next chance to win, at the Honda Classic, I didn’t want to make that mistake again. This time I was sharp and focused until the end, mentally prepared for a playoff against Tommy Fleetwood. Luckily, we didn’t have to go to a playoff, but I was ready for it had it come to that.

Unfortunately, I had to learn that lesson again at my first Masters, in 2020. My goal going in was to make it to the weekend. I had gained some necessary confidence by finishing 22nd at the US Open at Winged Foot and was happy to make the weekend at Augusta. Playing in the final group with Dustin Johnson was thrilling.

I started off strong and got the lead down to one shot. There was a moment when I thought, I could win the Masters today. Immediately after that thought I made a couple of mistakes, and Dustin ran away with it. I was humbly reminded that you have to stay focused. You can’t be greedy or try to predict what’s going to happen. Once you think that, things will go the other way. It was hard learning that lesson again, but I’m 23. I know I’ll have to keep learning. I’m still very proud of myself for finishing T-2.

I’m careful about the goals I set. I don’t want to get ahead of myself – I’ve seen what can happen when I do that. But when I look at this season, I can’t ignore that it’s an Olympic year. As it sits right now, I will most likely make the team, but you never know until the end. It would be such an honour to represent my country, and so tremendous to win a medal, that it’s honestly hard to even talk about. [Editor’s note: Im represented South Korea in Toyko, alongside countryman Si Woo Kim.]

Setting goals and playing tournaments isn’t as simple as it was when I was 9. Back then it was mostly about balancing the nerves and focus. Now I have expectations, and I have to keep my confidence up. I try to balance those things by staying as humble as I can with the opportunities I have. But one thing has not changed: I still hate to lose.

Interviewed by Keely Levins, with help from Sungjae Im’s translator and manager, Danny Oh.