DECEMBER 2 — Im Sung-jae possesses a deliberate and methodical backswing which often looks like it is in slow-motion. The languid action to fully load for impact is a direct contrast as to how the young Korean has so quickly ascended to the top of the world golf order.

As 2020 comes to a close following an unprecedented year in sport in which Covid-19 threatened to overshadow this great game, the 22-year-old rising star has stood out and delivered a bright ray of hope to Asian golf fans.

In attaining a maiden PGA TOUR victory in March and a standout joint second finish in his Masters Tournament debut last month, Im has reinforced the belief that the state of the game in Asia is very much in safe hands, no matter how slow Im’s backswing may be.

Im — who was introduced to the sport at three years old when his mother put a plastic club in his hands — has maintained his meteoric rise by driving away with his first PGA TOUR title at The Honda Classic earlier this year, and then finishing as the leading Asian in 11th place in the final 2020 FedExCup standings. Then he produced some Masters magic to eclipse KJ Choi’s best finish of third place at Augusta National, showing his poise and unleashing his shotmaking ability to finish only behind Dustin Johnson.

His career rise began only two years ago, when he led the Korn Ferry Tour money list from start to finish following two victories and three runner-up finishes. He was promptly named the circuit’s Player of the Year, at just 20 years old becoming the youngest ever to accomplish the feat. The Korean powerhouse then produced seven top-10s to earn Rookie of the Year honours on the PGA TOUR, and put the icing on a memorable 2019 campaign with a standout performance at the Presidents Cup, where he delivered 3.5 points for the International Team, which included a 4&3 thumping over Gary Woodland, the 2019 US Open champion, in the singles.

Not only did Im produce the largest cheer for Asia with his Honda heroics, he also had a fleeting brush at the coveted FedExCup at the season-ending TOUR Championship. Following superb rounds of 68 and 64 in Atlanta in August, he entered the weekend only one back of leader Dustin Johnson before nerves got to him as he settled for 11th place. He enjoyed a measure of consolation by dislodging Hideki Matsuyama as the region’s top finisher on TOUR, a position the Japanese star has held every year since 2014.

“The fact that I was able to get my first win in just my second year on TOUR, and to also win on a tough course meant a lot to me. Winning early on in my career has given me a lot of self-confidence. It led me to believe that I can chase after that second and third victory and it has become a catalyst for me to work even harder out here,” said Im, as he reflected on his year.

Due to his brand of golf which is built around clockwork consistency, Im has earned various nicknames on the PGA TOUR, including “The Machine,” “Iron Byron” and “Ironman Im.” Mackenzie Hughes, who was beaten into second place by Im at The Honda, called his final round duel with the Korean “man versus machine.” The Canadian said: “I’m the man, hitting shots in bunkers and hitting the grandstands, and he’s just like a machine. It was really impressive.”

Another golfer who has played enough with Im to know the Korean is the real deal is 2017 FedExCup winner, Justin Thomas. “I think impressive is an understatement. He’s way beyond his years for how young he is. The shots that he hits, to have that much variety in your game and be able to hit it high, really high with spin and hit it low and flight it and hold it up against the winds, both left to right and right to left, is very impressive.”

“He’s like a machine,” said Presidents Cup International Team vice-captain Geoff Ogilvy. “He’s the real deal. As far as the package, he’s the best package I’ve seen come out of South Korea. Easily.”

Im has vowed to get better and stronger when the New Year arrives. He wants to make substantial improvements based on lessons learnt in 2020, including the disappointing finish in the FedExCup Playoffs. “I was off to a great start, but not the rounds I wanted (after that). I was definitely a little disappointed but I’ll keep preparing and practicing. I did feel a lot of pressure and nerves. The experience was valuable and it will definitely help me contend in future events,” he said.

Other top Asian performances were duly delivered by Matsuyama, who enjoyed 15 top-25 finishes including five top-10s and Zhang Xinjun, who became the first mainland Chinese golfer to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs thanks to seven top-25s and three top-10s. He finished 78th in the final standings.

Zhang, who grew up in a farming village in China, was over the moon with his efforts. “I am so excited to compete with the best golfers and accumulate experiences. Trying to win is the objective of every player, and it’s the same for me. A small step leads to a thousand miles and what I can do is to focus on every tournament and every swing. I believe if I take small steps and continuously make improvements, I am closer and closer to becoming a PGA TOUR champion.”  

Im’s backswing was more orthodox previously but he slowed it down in search for consistency with his ball-striking. “During my first year on the Japan Tour, I realized my shot consistency wasn’t there. I experimented with my backswing tempo and it ended up working out really well, so ever since, I have changed my backswing tempo to where it is now.”

And it will be the kind of million-dollar backswing that will ensure his and Asian fortunes on golf’s biggest stage remain on the upswing.

* Chuah Choo Chiang is Senior Director, International Marketing and Communications, APAC for the PGA TOUR. He is based in Kuala Lumpur.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.