Sungjae Im in action; and Inset – Im with Hideki Matsuyama. Pics: Getty Images
After watching Hideki Matsuyama slip on the green jacket some two years ago, Sungjae Im can be forgiven if he finds himself day-dreaming of emulating one of golf’s greatest traditions this week.
With the Masters Tournament returning to Augusta National for the year’s opening major, Im will have added spring in his step as he prepares to launch another title assault at the prestigious event starting on Thursday.
The Masters is not one for the faint-hearted and the Korean star, who is a two-time PGA TOUR winner, knows that his proven track record at the fabled venue will make him a worthy contender.
In 2020 when the Masters was played in November due to COVID-19, Im notched Asia’s best finish in the history of the tournament when he came in joint runner-up in his debut appearance. Five months later, Matsuyama stole his thunder by becoming the first Japanese winner at Augusta National when the Masters returned to its annual spring date.
Matsuyama’s success ultimately gave every Asian golfer the belief that donning the green jacket was no longer a pipe dream, and Im, who turned 25 last week, believes his time will come sooner rather than later.
“I have finished great with a T2 and T8 … I have good and happy memories,” said Im. “I’m really looking forward to it. As a kid, I have watched this tournament on TV and getting myself into this event makes it extra special. I wish to enjoy another great finish.”
Like so many others, Im dreamt of making a putt to win the Masters. He was bitten by the golf bug after his parents put plastic golf clubs in his hands when he was four years old and proved to be a prodigy, excelling on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 with two wins before establishing himself on the PGA TOUR.
“Winning the green jacket is one of my dreams,” said Im, who is currently the highest ranked Asian golfer in the world at No. 18.
“I wish to get myself fitted into one someday. We’ve not had a Korean player win that title but if one of us do so, it will be very special for me. It will definitely be a good motivation. That win will make us realize that we also can win. I will try my best.”
While he has an impressive track record at Augusta National, Im’s performances in the current season has been solid with four top-10s, including a tied sixth at THE PLAYERS Championship last month. He won two of three group matches in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin two weeks ago before taking last week off for some final tune-ups.
“I have always come to Masters in this routine,” said Im.
“The greens at Augusta is fast and the atmosphere is quite different from other tournaments. But since I have three years of experience here, I wish to make something out of it.”
Like many other competitors, Im is intrigued by the changes made to the par-5 13th hole, which tee box has been pushed back by 35 yards and now makes the hole a 545-yard challenge. For years, the first of two par-5s on the back nine at Augusta National has tripped up many of the game’s biggest names due to Rae’s Creek meandering along the left side of the fairway and cutting across the front of a treacherous green.
“I have used 3 wood and driver on that hole previously but now, I think I need to focus on driver. I don’t think I will need to over-think that tee shot. However, we know that Amen Corner, the 11th, 12th,13th holes are crucial. If I can keep myself on track by making pars, I think I can keep my scores.”
Other Asians who will spearhead the region’s Masters challenge include Hideki Matsuyama, Korea’s first-timer Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim and K.H. Lee, and another Japanese debutant, Kazuki Higa.
Last year, Im opened his Masters with a first round 67 to become the first Korean golfer to hold the lead in any round at Augusta National before settling for a share of eighth. Im is also fuelled by his 2020 experience when he finished runner-up, which remains as his best major outing.
“I was just one back (in 2020) which made me think at that point ‘I could really win. Unfortunately, I finished runner-up. With that performance, I think I’m certainly competitive enough to win major tournaments in the near future,” Im said.
“I always want to come back here every year.”
A win this week for Im, and with the green jacket adorned on his sturdy frame, would ensure an annual return to Augusta National for the rest of his playing career.
Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.