Pure grit: South Korean pro Sungjae Im, now ranked 21st in the world, plays a patient game

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October 17, 2021 6:00 AM

Sungjae’s professional career graph hasn’t been a blitz as much as a methodical rise through the ranks.

Sungjae Im hits out of the faraway during the Shriners Children's Open golf tournament, Sunday, Oct. 10, 2021, at TPC Summerlin in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Sam Morris)

‘Orthodox Golf,’ is not a term you hear often nowadays. It meant, for those who may never have heard the phrase, to play golf ‘in regulation’—which means, to allow for two putts on every green, and plan your strategy accordingly. Theoretically, if you’re able to do that, and make a couple of one-putts, then you might end up breaking par but you’re unlikely to go over par.

The last generation of players swore by persistence and approaching the game the orthodox way and then relied on short game wizardry to win. That strategy bit the dust in the 1990s; today’s game is all about the risk takers, the long hitters, even the outrageous, a la Bryson DeChambeau.

I bring up DeChambeau only because the US Open winner and Sungjae Im, the 21st-ranked player in the world, represent two extreme positions of the spectrum when it comes to how they approach and play the game.

I don’t want to use the hare and tortoise fable: the life lesson which that story is meant to impart has got somewhat devalued in a post-modern world. Today, flashes of brilliance get more play than good old steadfastness and consistency. It’s possible that Sungjae displayed signs of prodigious golfing talent as a child. But there’s no way to tell: in Korea, to imply someone has been successful on account of talent, rather than sheer hard work, is almost a slur.

And Sungjae’s professional career graph hasn’t been a blitz as much as a methodical rise through the ranks. After moving to the United States, the man decided to ply his trade on the Korn Ferry Tour as a stepping stone to the big league rather than trying his luck at qualifiers, or sponsor exemptions. He went on to grind out two victories over a hard-fought season and win the Tour’s Player of the Year award. With minimum fuss, and no short cuts later, Sungjae earned his entry to the USPGA Tour.

On the biggest stage in world golf, the Korean has, patiently and relentlessly, honed his skills. Since joining the Tour, the Korean has teed it up 342 times—more than anyone else on tour. He notched up his first victory on his 100th start, and then, a couple of weeks back, won the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. It was his 150th start on the PGA Tour.

Sungjae would have passed under the radar again had it not been for the astonishing statistics that emerged after his win. Numbers tend to accrue, and over a period of time begin to tell a story. While ‘Greens in Regulation’ may never be able to compete with ‘Driving Distance’ for effect, but 62 greens in regulation over 72 holes? That was a bit too outrageous to be ignored. A record, surely, asked the fans, and were told, no, the record is 64 greens in regulation, and was shot at last year’s event by, you guessed it, Sungjae Im.

Now, twitter is abuzz with Sungjae’s stats and there’s a plethora—most number of sub par rounds, most number of rounds in the 60s, most rounds 67 or better, and most surprisingly, the maximum number of birdies on tour. The last one in particular, is a stunning testament to how effective Sungjae’s playing strategy has been. All of this gives the impression of a level-headed player who’s spent years honing his safe play. That’s where the stereotype breaks: Sungjae, you see, at 23 years of age, is no veteran. At this rate, and you can be sure he’s going to keep going, this man would well be ranked amongst the top-five players in the world.

Meanwhile another Korean—Jin Young Ko—who plays on the LPGA, just tied Annika Sorenstam for the longest bogey-free streak in the Tour’s history. Ko went 114 rounds without dropping a stroke. That’s 4 holes better than the men’s record held by Tiger Woods. Unlike Sungjae though, Ko isn’t about attrition; In 2020 she teed it up just four times to win the money list. Duh.

Talking of domination, PGA Championship winner, Phil Mickelson, continued to run riot on the Champions Tour, winning his third event of the season. Mickelson has teed it up only four times on the senior tour and you can be sure that fellow pros on that tour will be praying for his continued success on the main tour. It’s hard to get into Lefty’s frame of mind; while there’s no question of his abilities to compete on the regular Tour, Mickelson isn’t in it to compete. He’s a man who likes to win, and as these starts have demonstrated, he’s not averse to playing the Champions Tour.

Rounding things up for South Korea was the first winner on the PGA Tour from that country—KJ Choi. The veteran who broke that barrier in 2002 and went on to win a Major—the 2011 Player’s Championship —had been winless ever since. Last month, Choi became the first Korean to win on the Champions Tour last month when he won the PURE Insurance Open. Choi wrapped up his final round with five birdies and a lone bogey to win over Bernhard Langer by two strokes. Choi’s winning strategy? By now, we know how this works—keeping it in play and minimising dropped strokes. Choi made just two bogeys in the entire event.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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