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Sungjae Im finally backed up his reputation as one of the emerging stars of the PGA Tour by earning his maiden victory at the Honda Classic.
Im, the 21-year-old reigning Tour rookie of the year, played the infamous Bear Trap, three consecutive water-laden holes beginning at 15 at the Jack Nicklaus-designed Champion course at PGA National Resort and Spa, in 2 under en route to shooting a final-round 4-under 66. Im had to get up-and-down for par out of a bunker at the par-5 18th to finish at 6-under 274, and edged Canadian Mackenzie Hughes by one stroke.
“I’ve been in this spot many times. I just felt like the experiences really helped, especially on the last few holes. I just wanted to get a little more aggressive . I was just happy to finish the way that I did,” Im said through his caddie, Albin Choi, who served as an interpreter.
Im, who turned pro at age 17, played a Tour-high 35 tournaments last season, recording seven top-10 finishes and was the only rookie to qualify for the 30-man Tour Championship. He was a captain’s choice for the Presidents Cup, where he earned three points and beat U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in singles, leading to his teammates dubbing him “The Weapon.” And his swing has been compared favorably to the USGA ball-testing robot Iron Byron because it is so repeatable. Even Hughes said he joked about it as he played the 72nd hole of the tournament.
“I was like, man versus machine. I’m the man, hitting shots in bunkers and hitting the grandstands on 18 and he’s just like a machine,” Hughes said.
The South Korean, who entered the week ranked No. 34 in the world, also doesn’t have a permanent residence and lives week-to-week at hotels with his parents joining him in a separate room and helping him in his U.S. adventure.
On a wild day where no less than four golfers held or shared the lead, Im birdied four of the five first holes to cut into the lead of 54-hole leader Tommy Fleetwood. Im took just 11 putts in his first 10 holes before back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 12 and 13 temporarily slowed his march to victory.
Hughes, 29, nearly went from the cutline to the winner’s circle. After making the cut on the number at 3 over, Hughes shot 66, the low round of the day on Saturday, to improve 51 spots. Playing alongside Im, Hughes holed a bunker shot at 13 on Sunday and played his first 15 holes without a bogey to join the trophy chase.
Fleetwood, No. 12 in the world, has won five times on the European Tour but he’s the only player in the top 20 of the world ranking without a victory on the PGA Tour. Runner-up at the 2018 U.S. Open and 2019 British Open, Fleetwood raced to a three-stroke lead with birdies on the first two holes. But he failed to make another birdie until 17 and hit his second shot at 18 in the water to blow another chance to put an end to the questions of when he will win on the PGA Tour. Fleetwood finished alone in third after a 1-over 71.
Im seized the moment at 15, where water guards both the front and right sides of the green, and a large bunker to the left is a magnet for those who bail out. He called it the toughest hole on the course, but it didn’t stop him from taking dead aim with a 5-iron.
“Just felt like I had everything to attack the pin the way I did,” Im said of his aggressive line.
He stuck it to 8 feet and canned the putt for birdie, and knocked his tee shot to 8 feet again at 17 and rolled the downhill putt in moments after Hughes poured in a 54-foot birdie putt to momentarily tie for the lead.
“I was like, ‘Let’s just try and make Sungjae’s putt a little harder,’ ” Hughes recounted. “That’s a huge bonus that that ball would drop in. I haven’t been that excited on the golf course in a long time.”
But Hughes, who had missed five cuts in a row, nine of 11 this season and hadn’t recorded a top-10 finish since the Charles Schwab Challenge in May, hooked his second shot into the stands at 18 and failed to make birdie. He finished with a second straight tournament-best 66. This week marked the first non-major on the Tour since 1996 without any player posting a score of 5 under or better in a round.
Im was the 36-hole leader at Honda a year ago, but the moment proved to be too big for him and he ballooned to a Saturday 77 and finished T-51. Not this time. Im became the youngest champion of the Honda Classic and the 14th international player, including countryman Y.E. Yang, to win the title in the last 27 years.
“Even after winning Rookie of the Year and having a few chances to win, I really wanted to get that win,” Im said. “Had a few good chances that slipped away, but I’m also still very grateful that I could win at such a young age, and to have it happen as fast as it did, I’m very happy and satisfied.”