ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – They call South Korea’s Sungjae Im “Iron Byron,” a nickname that pays homage both to Byron Nelson, the godfather of the modern swing, and the name of the U.S. Golf Association’s mechanical tester of golf balls since 1974. Coined by his teammates on the 2019 International Presidents Cup team that competed in Australia, Im’s nickname reflects the consistency of his ballstriking prowess.
“He’s like a machine,” said 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.”
At age 22, Im already has made his mark as a PGA Tour winner and one of the top-20 ranked players in the world.
“He’s one of the most consistent iron players I’ve seen out here and also has one of the best short games I’ve ever seen,” said PGA Tour veteran Harris English. “I can see him contending in a lot of majors, winning majors and playing out here for a long time.”
Last week, at Augusta National, Im threatened to become a Masters champion in his tournament debut, closing to within one stroke of eventual champion Dustin Johnson after five holes on Sunday before Johnson managed to pull away and win by five.
“My initial goal at the start of the week was just to make a cut and get into the weekend. So, to finish tied for second is unbelievable,” Im said after tying with Cameron Smith at 15-under 273, a score that would’ve won all but four of 84 Masters and was the best result by a Masters rookie since Jordan Spieth tied for second in 2014.
With budding confidence, Im is set to take on the challenge of another venerable Georgia course, Sea Island Resort’s Seaside Course (along with one round at the Plantation Course) on the picturesque Golden Isles. He credited his good play last week not so much to his dead-eye iron game, but rather to a good run with his short stick since making a putter change in Houston two weeks ago.
“That’s what made the difference,” said Im, who ranked fifth in the field in putts per greens in regulation (1.64).
Im struggled with his putting early this season – he ranks No. 135 in Strokes Gained: Putting this season, down from No. 55 last season – and after a frustrating round at the Zozo Championship he spent three hours practicing with a Scotty Cameron SSS model mallet putter that he described as having a moon shape. He ditched the putter he’d won the Honda Classic with in March in favor of the new model at the Vivint Houston Open.
“When I set up, the new putter looks good to my eye,” he said through a translator.
Im also made a caddie change two months ago, hiring veteran Bobby Brown, who had a six-year run on Johnson’s bag earlier in his career, including when he was Im’s age. Brown said comparing his current boss to the current World No. 1 is “apples to oranges,” but said Im has the potential to ascend to similar heights.
“There’s the potential to be World No. 1 in the future,” Brown said of Im, who already has climbed to No. 18.
Im has been on a fast track ever since following his mom to the golf course at age 4 and holding a golf club in his hand for the first time.
“I immediately fell in love with the game, and here I am,” he said.
Im turned professional at age 17, and was named Korn Ferry Tour Player of the Year in 2018. It was during that season that he developed an affection for Atlanta’s Korean community, where he recently closed on a house near TPC Sugarloaf in the suburb of Duluth. Im has been living the life of an itinerant pro, going from hotel to hotel with his parents in tow as he competed in a Tour-high 61 events in the 2019 and 2020 seasons.
“I’ve always thought about buying a home in the United States,” Im said. “Since I’ll be competing on the PGA Tour for as long as I can, I’m glad it came together this year.”