NOVEMBER 2 — The similarity in their golf swings is rather uncanny. One owns a deliberate take-away that feigns slow motion on video, while the other possesses a prolonged pause at the top of the backswing that has become a popular meme on social media.
It can sometimes feel like an eternity for each to unleash a golf shot but when they eventually pull the trigger, Korea’s Sungjae Im and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan certainly have the ability to produce a picture of power mixed with precision as they pursue golf’s greatness on the PGA Tour.
Matsuyama, 29, and Im, 23, have maintained a firm stranglehold as Asia’s leading duo where their unique styles have cemented their status as the highest ranked Asians in the Official World Golf Ranking at No. 12th and 23rd, respectively. They also hold great pride as being the only two golfers from the Far East who have qualified for the FedExCup Playoffs finale, the TOUR Championship, over the past three seasons.
Over the past month, Im and Matsuyama produced stylish victories to remind the golf world of their immense talents and potential, with the young Korean, who is nicknamed “Ironman”, shooting a final-round 62 to claim a second Tour victory at the Shriners Children’s Open in Vegas and Matsuyama prevailing at the Zozo Championship on home soil after a closing 65 for his seventh career title. It was the icing on the cake after his historic Masters Tournament victory in April.
While there is little doubt the dynamic duo will accumulate many more PGA Tour wins in years to come and surpass KJ Choi’s eight-victory haul, which is the highest by an Asian to date, the question now is who will become the first Asian to claim the Tour’s ultimate prize, the FedExCup, and also ascend to No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking.
Trevor Immelman, the International Team captain for the 2022 Presidents Cup, has great insights on both players and has enjoyed a front-row seat watching Im blossom into a world-class golfer through his role as assistant captain at Royal Melbourne in 2019 and as a Golf Channel pundit. The astute South African, who was Masters champion in 2008, also witnessed first-hand how Matsuyama triumphed at Augusta National to become the first Asian to slip on the famous green jacket.
When Im was marching towards a four-shot victory in Vegas, Immelman marvelled during the broadcast that the Korean rising star, who learned the game when he was four, had all the tools in his bag to become the best player in the world. “He absolutely has everything that it takes. This guy has all the goods to be the best in the world,” Immelman enthused. “One of the best drivers on tour, he’s got a plenty of distance, irons are laser-like and his short game is solid. This guy has got an incredible future ahead and I can’t wait to see how it unfolds.”
Over the past year, Im has continued to solidify the foundation to his game, including hiring a fitness trainer and settling down in a new home in Atlanta with his parents after living from out of a suitcase during his first few years in the US He also recently engaged veteran caddie Billy Spencer and continues to work with long-time swing coach Hyun Choi, who was responsible for the slow take-away in his backswing.
Im is keeping his feet firmly on the ground despite his captain’s stamp of approval. “It's a very overwhelming comment and I'm very thankful. I feel like I'm still a long way to go to be the top player in the world, but I have a goal in mind and I always try to continue to get better every day, so one day hopefully I can become that good player,” said Im, whose highest world ranking is 16th and holds a career-best 11th place finish in the FedExCup standings in 2020.
Matsuyama’s world ranking rose to a career high second in 2017 — the same year he entered the FedExCup Playoffs ranked No. 1 before finishing an eventual eighth place — but he has endured a winless streak that ended with his magical Masters win. He contended once more at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational in August before delivering a famous home victory at the Zozo Championship, becoming the first Japanese to win the nation’s lone PGA Tour event.
Interestingly, the often stoic Japanese star provided a glimpse of how high he sets his own bar when it comes to golf. In his pre-tournament interview, he told the media through a translator that his game was well off the mark. “Ball striking, putting, chipping, all of these have not reached the level I want. If my game scored 10 out of 10 at the Masters, now I would say it scores less than 1,” he said. “I will be struggling this week but I am here in Japan, so I am motivated to be in contention.”
Lo and behold, rounds of 64, 68, 68 and 65 for an astounding five-shot triumph in front of 5,000 appreciative fans ensured Matsuyama would savour a first home triumph. When quizzed again on his form after his win, he replied: “I would rate my performance as 2 or 3. From the results perspective, it went about to 8, but I think it's because all the energy that I was getting from the fans. As you guys may have had a chance to see me on the driving range, my balls were all over and not consistent, but once at the golf course, I was able to feed off of the energy of the crowd.
“Everyone else’s idea of consistency is different to the consistency that I’m pursuing.”
Should Im or Matsuyama make more history in years to come by winning the FedExCup or becoming Asia’s first World No. 1, the throwaway comment from the latter would clearly be the driving force for them to become truly world-class golfers.
* Note: Chuah Choo Chiang is Senior Director, Marketing and Communications, Asia Pacific for the PGA Tour and is based in Malaysia.
** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.