PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Sungjae Im played as if he didn’t see all that trouble in the Bear Trap on Sunday at the Honda Classic.
He stepped up to the 15th tee, the opening to one of the meanest three-hole stretches on the PGA Tour, and fearlessly ripped a 5-iron at the flagstick, knocking the shot to 8 feet. He played as if he didn’t see how perilously that hole location was tucked against the water, or as if he didn’t feel the cool, stiffening breeze blowing off the water to his right.
Im didn’t play like a baby-faced pro trying to close out his first PGA Tour title on the toughest test of golf outside the major championships.
No, Im became the youngest winner in the history of the Honda Classic by attacking like a guy who has closed out a dozen Tour titles.
Mostly, though, he played like a guy determined to comfort his Korean homeland as it struggles with the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s kind of a huge deal,” Im said. “I’m just glad as a Korean player I can deliver some good news to the countrymen back home.”
Im broke through to win his first PGA Tour title at 21 years, 11 months and 2 days old.
Im owned the Bear Trap coming home. He birdied the 15th hole, safely navigated the 16th with a two-putt par and attacked again at the 17th, carving a 7-iron to 8 feet yet again, making yet another birdie to build a two-shot lead.
“Fifteen is probably the hardest hole out here, in my opinion,” Im said through his caddie, who also acted as translator. “Going into that hole the past few days, I was a little tentative, and didn't really hit my lines. But going into it today, I had the right club. The wind was in the right spot. I just felt I had everything to attack the pin the way I did. I just was aggressive and saw my shot.”
Im overtook English star Tommy Fleetwood, the 54-hole leader. He did so taking control with aggressive play through the Bear Trap.
Im closed out with a 4-under-par 66 on a course that played more difficult than any non-major in four years. His 6-under winning total was the highest score in relation to par on the PGA Tour since 2016. He finished a shot ahead of Mackenzie Hughes and two ahead of Fleetwood, whose bid to win failed at the 72th hole, when he knocked a 5-wood into the water.
There was extra satisfaction winning with Im’s homeland heavy on his heart.
“There has been, reportedly, over 2,000 cases of people that have been affected with the coronavirus in Korea,” Im said. “To be honest, I'm a little concerned and worried about how fast this virus is spreading. As of right now, all I can do is pray for the best and just hope moving forward that not many more people get affected, and, hopefully, this virus can be calmed down and sort itself out very soon.”
Im’s caddie, Albin Choi, added to the special nature of the story. Choi is Canadian born but of Korean descent. He speaks fluent Korean and got to know Im playing the Korn Ferry Tour. They became friends. With Choi rebounding from a wrist injury, Im enlisted his help this week. Choi has been spending the winter caddying at Old Palm, just down the street from PGA National.
“He was looking for a guy this week,” Choi said. “I know he's had some language barriers with other caddies. I just felt like we communicate better, and being a player myself, and having played this golf course a lot of times, he wanted somebody on the bag with a little bit of experience. I accepted, and I'm glad that I did.”