Sungjae Im’s journey to lead the Masters | Golf News and Tour Information

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the March 2021 issue of Golf Digest magazine.

I remember loving golf since I was little, growing up in South Korea, winning small games, how much fun golf was. But more than anything, I hated losing. My parents used to play, and when I was 4, I was imitating their swings with things around the house. When I was 9 years old, I was good enough to participate in my first tournament. I had never shot 90 this far, but that day I shot 77. I remember being super focused and nervous at the same time. The way these two feelings came
together it was almost spiritual, and it resulted in a focus that 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 of being anything else.

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

This first season in Japan, it was a miracle that I kept my card. Mentally, I was unprepared for the pressure and the number of tournaments. I realized that I had come through this season not having confidence in the way I played golf. The following season, I chose to believe in my style of play – consistency, consistency – and it worked. I finished in the top 15 on the money list, and that was enough to exempt me from Q-school stage two.

I qualified for 2018 [now Korn Ferry] The touring season, and it couldn’t have started better. The first tournament I won, and the second tournament I was a runner-up. In the first two events only, I had obtained my PGA Tour card. I set myself a new goal to try to be the money winner for the season – which would mean I could play every PGA Tour event except the Majors. I succeeded too.

I felt ready for the PGA Tour. Being able to train with players I 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 it. He has such a great imagination and he can hit any shot he wants. He plays with so much confidence. It has its own glow around it.

A few events in the 2019 season, I lost in the playoffs to 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 tough putt to force the playoff, and I wasn’t mentally prepared for it. 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 need to go to the playoffs, but I was ready for that to happen.

Unfortunately, I had to relearn this lesson during my first Master, in 2020. My goal was to get to the weekend. I had gained the necessary confidence by finishing 22nd at the US Open at Winged Foot and was happy to do the weekend in Augusta. Playing in the final group with Dustin Johnson was thrilling.

I started strong and reduced the lead to one shot. There was a moment when I thought, I could win the Masters today. Immediately after that, I made a few mistakes and Dustin ran off with them. I was humbly reminded 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 to learn that lesson again, but I’m 23. I know I will have to keep learning. I’m still very proud of myself for finishing T-2.

I pay attention to the goals I set for myself. 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 things stand, I will most likely make the team, but you never know until the end. It would be such an honor to represent my country, and so great to win a medal, that it’s honestly hard to talk about. [Editor’s note: Im represented South Korea in Toyko, alongside countryman Si Woo Kim.]

Setting goals and competing in tournaments isn’t as easy as it was when I was 9 years old. Back then, it was all about balancing nerves and concentration. Now I have expectations and I have to keep faith. I try to balance those things by staying as humble as possible with the opportunities that come my way. But one thing hasn’t changed: I still hate losing.

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

Michael C. Ford