APRIL 1 — With spring in the air and the azaleas primed for a glorious bloom at Augusta National, the Masters Tournament returns to its familiar April slot next week and Asia dreaming that this could finally be the year to truly see green.
The Masters, which was co-founded by golf legend Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1934, annually awards the champion with a Green Jacket, a prize coveted by every professional golfer along with the other three majors, THE PLAYERS Championship and FedExCup season-long crown on the PGA Tour.
Last year’s 84th playing of the Masters was held for the first time in November due to the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic but the historic switch proved especially rewarding for Asia’s band of glory-hunters.
It was indeed a magical week where Korea’s Im Sung-jae, already established as one of the game’s young and rising stars, cemented his major credentials by finishing joint runner-up in his debut at Augusta National.
As he finished behind only to reigning FedExCup champion and World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who won by five strokes for his first Green Jacket and 24th PGA Tour career victory, the 23-year-old Im showed his prodigious talents once again with four sublime rounds of 66, 70, 68 and 69 for a 15-under total. On a different occasion, it could have earned him a life-changing victory and a chance to slip on the Green Jacket as he settled for rewriting the history pages as Asia’s best performer at the Masters where he eclipsed countryman KJ Choi’s third place performance in 2004.
Asia’s longing for a second major champion after YE Yang’s historic triumph at the 2009 PGA Championship will also rest squarely on the slender shoulders of Chinese Taipei’s CT Pan, who like Im, enjoyed a standout Masters debut five months ago.
The 29-year-old Pan, who watched the Masters in the wee hours of the mornings as a kid with his late father and older brother, produced some of his best golf with his controlled iron display and even-keeled temperament to finish an impressive tied seventh, which guaranteed a quick return to the Masters. Aside from Im and Pan, Si Woo Kim, who bagged his third Tour title in January and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, will carry Asia’s flag.
Im, the 2019 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and winner of The Honda Classic last season, simply can’t wait to tee up again at the hallowed turf of Augusta National. “Finishing tied for second is unbelievable, and I’m proud. My initial goal at the start of the week was just to make the cut and get into the weekend,” said the Korean star.
As a young boy, Im grew up watching the Masters in the early hours in Korea, and having a front-row seat watching Johnson dominate, showed what he needs to improve on to get the deal done the next time he is in contention.
“Dustin definitely plays at another level. He was long and accurate. Just watching him play, he makes the game look so easy,” said Im, who became the third-youngest player after Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods to finish in the top five at the Masters.
Pan’s return to his second Masters will very much produce the same feelings as the first time. His game wasn’t sharp heading into his debut last November and despite the impressive finish, it failed to ignite his 2021 campaign until recently where he finished T3 in The Honda Classic two weeks ago.
Happy thoughts will certainly fill his mind in his drive up Magnolia Lane again. “It was an amazing week. As a kid, the first major I watched on TV was the Masters, which always meant more than the other majors because I grew up watching it,” said Pan.
“I remember all the holes, especially on the back nine. It’s nice I’ve been there for the first time and had such a great performance which means a lot. Personally, I’ve been struggling in the majors which is weird as I’ve always thought I’d be a good player for the majors and I’ve not performed my best. Finishing top-10 is a good confidence boost,” added Pan, who has two other made cuts from 10 career major appearances.
Soaking in the Masters experience, which included sampling the famous pimento cheese sandwich, played a role in Pan’s success. With his wife Michelle in tow, Pan had a gala time, which he attributed to his good form. “Can’t wait to go back there for the food. We had some wonderful fillet mignon steak and I loved the pimento cheese sandwich and egg sandwich. I think I tried all the sandwiches they had,” recalled Pan.
“Being a first timer, I did not have much expectation and that mindset helped me a lot as I was able to enjoy myself being out there. Everything clicked. I was sightseeing quite a bit, enjoying the memories of being at the Masters which I grew up watching with my father and brother. It was an unbelievable experience and it was really cool.”
“Getting back to the Masters is the best reward for four hard days of playing. Back home, people watch the Masters more than any other event. I obviously wish my dad was still in this world to watch me. After I finished four rounds, my brother texted me as it was an emotional week for him too.”
Asia’s other representatives at the Masters include Korea’s Si Woo Kim, who has finished top-35 at Augusta National over the past three years, and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who owns two top-10s and three top-20s at the Masters.
* Chuah Choo Chiang is senior director, international marketing and communications, APAC for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.
** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.