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Im steels Internationals for revenge mission

By CHUAH CHOO CHIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2022-09-21 10:55
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Im Sung-jae of the International Team shakes hands with US Team captain Tiger Woods during the 2019 Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Melbourne, Australia. [Photo/GETTY IMAGES]

True genius in golf is rare, but South Korea's Im Sung-jae certainly ticks those boxes.

The 24-year-old has grown from a prodigious talent to a world-class golfer. The two-time PGA Tour winner will inevitably be one of the vital cogs in captain Trevor Immelman's underdog International Team, who will be determined to dethrone a powerful United States Team at this week's Presidents Cup at Quail Hollow in Charlotte, North Carolina, starting Thursday.

Three years ago, Im was a captain's pick by Ernie Els and he performed like a seasoned campaigner as he used Royal Melbourne as a playground to cement his rising-star status by delivering an impressive 3.5 points in his team's narrow 16-14 loss.

Im has earned his team's place on merit this time around and Immelman, who was one of Els' assistants, knows exactly the kind of firepower and influence the Korean ironman can deliver at Quail Hollow. More importantly, Im has also proven he can team up with any player, having played with three different partners in the fourball and foursomes sessions at Royal Melbourne.

Aside from being well-known for his ball-striking prowess-he ranked ninth on the PGA Tour's Strokes Gained: Tee to Green standings in the season just ended-Im is also something of a birdie machine, an attribute that is vital in match play. He set a new PGA Tour record in 2021 for most birdies in a season with his haul of 494.

Canada's Adam Hadwin, who partnered Im to win a fourball match against Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele in Melbourne, holds the utmost respect for the supremely talented Korean.

"Sung-jae is such an unbelievable player. I feel like he might even be steadier than me. He doesn't miss too many shots. Sung-jae makes it so easy to play with," said Hadwin, who unfortunately missed out on the team this year.

When the International Team arrived at Royal Melbourne, a majority of players opted to only walk the golf course on the Monday as winds were swirling and were forecast not to prevail in the same manner for the rest of the week.

Australia's Adam Scott, who will make his 10th straight appearance in Charlotte, shared an anecdote that provided a further glimpse into how good Im truly is.

"It was so windy that I certainly didn't even think about touching any of the holes because I didn't want to destroy my confidence," Scott said.

"Sung-jae was the only guy who went out there to play, so we ended up walking out and watching him play a few holes, and even in a 25-mile-an-hour wind, he was just fairway, green, fairway, green, and it was a bit like Iron Byron, like a machine," added the Aussie in reference to golf legend Byron Nelson who was renowned for his consistent iron play.

Gary Woodland was the rather unfortunate American drawn to face Im at his brilliant best in the singles, and was outclassed in a 4&3 defeat.

"It was stressful. I played great and got steamrolled," admitted the former US Open champion.

Im grew up playing golf on Jeju Island, thanks to his parents' encouragement, and his rise in the professional ranks has been meteoric. After representing the South Korean national team, he played on the Korean Tour and Japan Golf Tour during his teens before finding instant success on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018 where he was named Player and Rookie of the Year, thanks to two victories and multiple top-10s.

His transition onto the elite PGA Tour was as smooth as his swing as he made it into the top-30 Tour Championship in 2019, earned Rookie of the Year honors and also a wild card for the Presidents Cup. That experience has since stirred the fire in Im's belly in his attempt to help the Internationals secure what would be only a second win in the series since 1994.

"If we can win the Cup, this will become part of my career," said Im, who finished tied-second in the recent Fed-ExCup final standings-the best by an Asian golfer. "There is only one time when the International Team won, so if I could be part of the team when we win the next time, it will mean a lot. I will make sure we try our best."

Im has no doubt that the camaraderie that has developed over the last few years will boost the team's quest to finally upstage the Americans. The International Team's new logo, a shield incorporating the players' various international flags, has also helped unify the squad.

He would not trade his experience in 2019 for anything in the world, despite the tough loss to the US, then led by captain Tiger Woods, who secured a dramatic come-from-behind victory in the final day's singles. The Korean star intends to use the defeat to fire him up instead.

"Everyone cheering as one team is the most special moment for me from 2019," said Im. "It was my first Presidents Cup and it was a pretty impressive week for me and a great experience. I'm looking forward to the next one. Quail Hollow is not easy but our International Team will try their best and I will try my best."

Im knows a successful week will also be atonement for Els. "Ernie led our team so well in 2019," he recalled. "We were leading but unfortunately, we couldn't hold the trophy at the end."

The writer is senior director of marketing & communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.



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