Money-leader Im started young
Cut-down adult clubs, a driving range and willing parents in Jeju, South Korea.
That was all it took to hook 4-year-old Sungjae Im on the game of golf.
"I was instantly hooked," he says. "It was so much fun for me. I loved the feeling of the club making contact with the ball. I loved playing with those clubs."
Sixteen years later, the clubs are longer and Im is the leading money winner on the Web.com Tour — and he is all set to make the big leap to the PGA Tour.
Just don't ask him to play with a No. 4 golf ball (more on that later in this story).
The 6-0, 200-pound Im will be in the field this week at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club for the WinCo Foods Portland Open.
The 72-hole tournament — Thursday through Sunday in North Plains — is the final regular-season event on the circuit. After it ends, the top 25 season money-winners will receive their PGA Tour cards for the 2018-19 season in a ceremony on the 18th green.
Im's promotion has been locked up since he made it onto the Web.com Tour in his first try in the annual qualifying event (finishing second) and then won in his first start — capturing the Bahamas Great Exuma Classic on Jan. 16 at age 19.
He became the second-youngest player to win on the circuit, just two months older than Jason Day was when he won in 2007.
Im's 13-under 275 total beat runner-up Carlos Ortiz by four shots.
"I never expected to win this quickly," he said at the time.
Im has led the Web.com money chart for 22 weeks — two weeks shy of and with a chance to break Michael Sim's tour record. Im's 2018 earnings of $390,326 are solidly ahead of No. 2 Sam Burns ($291,878). Im has been steady all year, placing second three times and making the top 10 in seven out of 21 events
Last week, he took a break to play in the PGA Championship. He qualified for that major, at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, after reaching No. 96 in the world golf rankings.
One reason he was excited to play there? He got to see his hero, Tiger Woods.
The downside? He missed a chance to play with Golden State Warriors basketball star Stephen Curry in the Web.com Tour's Ellie Mae Classic at Hayward, California.
"I'm incredibly disappointed that I can't meet Steph. It would have been a great experience," Im said before the PGA.
Im had a much better week than Curry, though. The NBA guard missed the cut with the worst score in the field by 10 strokes, shooting 86 after an opening 71 in what was basically a Bay Area home game for him at TPC Stonebrae. Im, meanwhile, had an impressive tie for 42nd, finishing at 3-under 277.
Next stop for Im: Pumpkin Ridge and the $800,000 WinCo Foods Portland Open. The two-day pro-am concludes Tuesday. Tournament play begins at 7 a.m. Thursday. The winner gets $144,000.
"I've never been to Oregon," Im says through tour interpreter Sharon Shin. "I think the closest I've been to that area is California. I honestly don't know much about it, so I'm really looking forward to it."
Im says his other favorite PGA Tour stars include Adam Scott and Hideki Matsuyama.
"Adam Scott has a perfect swing, so I like to look at his swing as a form of image training," he says. "With Hideki, he has a special swing rhythm that works for him, so I appreciate that about him. He's so consistent. People tell me sometimes that my backswing reminds them of Hideki's, since I take it back slow. I feel like there's a difference, though, because he pauses at the top while I just have a slow takeaway."
Im says his favorite LPGA players are not fellow South Koreans but rather are golfers ages 20 and 32, respectively, from the United States.
"I'm a fan of Nelly Korda and Paula Creamer," he says. "I like how they handle themselves on the golf course. They seem incredibly poised and mature."
Im grew up in Jeju Island, and learned the game at the CJ Nine Bridges Golf Club, site of a PGA Tour event last year won by Justin Thomas. He started taking golf lessons while in the first grade. Golf was the only sport he played, for all intents and purposes.
"I started taking golf seriously at a young age, so I didn't really have a chance to play any other sports," he says.
Im says he never had any "direct" offer to play college golf in the U.S., and never aspired to do so.
He began playing basically full time on the Japan Golf Tour in 2016 (at age 17). He had six top-five finishes last year in Japan and finished 12th in earnings, then set his sights on the Web.com Tour, which is the direct route to the PGA Tour.
"My goal has always been to make it to the PGA Tour, and that was my main motivation for moving to the United States," he says.
His father works for a construction company, and his mother "is a stay-at-home mom" mostly, but both have been traveling with him to every tournament this year.
"I'm really grateful to have that support system with me at all times," Im says. "I don't think I could've done it alone this season."
The support system includes his caddy — and by design, he's had four of them this year.
"I won the Bahamas tournament with Daniel Gregory, then worked with Jeff King starting in Louisiana (in March), then switched to Jim McGurk in Omaha (in July)," he says.
Next up is Brian Vranesh, a former PGA Tour player who is returning to his bag this week. He caddied for Im at the late-2017 Web.com qualifying event.
Im says he's gone with different caddies because "I want to get a feel for what I like and don't like … and test out what works well for me."
He says long-iron play is his strength, and his 4- and 5-irons are probably his favorite clubs. He says he hits a 4-iron 200-plus yards and a 5-iron about 190.
Everything was "extremely great" when he won at The Bahamas, including his iron play and putting. He closed with a bogey-free, 7-under 65, the low round of the day.
He says he most remembers a key shot on the 10th hole.
"It was incredibly windy, and the hole played longer than normal. The pin was tucked back, and the wind was blowing left to right. For my second shot, I hit a hybrid, and it landed pin-high, about 15 feet from the hole. For some reason, that shot stands out the most to me because we were all playing in difficult conditions and I was able to pull it off."
Shots like that — and going through a year on the Web.com Tour — have made him "more secure and poised as a player," he says. "After turning pro, I've developed both as a person and as a golfer each year. I've definitely matured these last few years on the road."
What he'd most like to improve is his spin control on shots inside 110 yards.
"The courses I've been playing recently have had incredibly soft greens, so balls tend to over-spin. I prefer to play on harder greens, so I'm working hard on making that adjustment," he says.
One thing he won't do — spin or no spin — is tee it up with a golf ball that has No. 4 on it.
"In South Korea, the number four represents death, so I try to avoid it for obvious reasons," he says, laughing. "That number doesn't give me good vibes.
"Most South Koreans don't like that number in general. Even in elevators, the fourth floor is represented with the letter 'F' instead of the number four.
"It's a common theme for most Korean golfers to never use a No. 4 golf ball."
WinCo Foods Portland Open
What: Regular-season finale on the Web.com Tour … 72 holes, $800,000 purse, $144,000 to the winner
Where: Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, Witch Hollow course, North Plains
Tickets: $15 daily, $25 weekly, other packages available, go to wincofoodsportlandopen.com
Notes: The Web.com Tour is the stepping stone to the PGA Tour. The top 25 season money winners will get their 2018-19 PGA Tour cards at the end of the WinCo Foods Portland Open in a ceremony on the 18th green. … The Web.com Tour has 71 international players from 22 countries outside the U.S. this year. … Martin Trainer, 27, a native of France who played for USC and lives in San Francisco, is the only two-time winner this season. … The WinCo Foods Portland Open is one of 27 events on this year's Web.com Tour schedule. … This is the fifth year the event has been played at Pumpkin Ridge. … The Witch Hollow course will play to a par of 72 and at approximately 7,109 yards. … The top 75 money winners after this week's event qualify for the 2018 Web.com Tour finals. They'll be joined by the players who finish Nos. 126-200 on the PGA Tour's FedExCup points list after this week's Wyndham Championship. The 25 golfers with the most cumulative money won in the four Web.com finals events will earn PGA Tour cards as well. The finals conclude with the Web.com Tour Championship, Sept. 17-23 at Atlantic Beach, Fla.