Triumphant Im offers well wishes to Koreans


PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Moments after getting his first career PGA Tour win, Sungjae Im took a moment to reflect on what it means.

Not for himself — for his homeland.

The 21-year-old South Korean started fast and finished stronger Sunday, winning the Honda Classic by one shot over Mackenzie Hughes and two over Tommy Fleetwood for his first victory in 50 tries on tour.

His thoughts were not on the trophy or the $1.26 million winner’s prize, but rather the coronavirus and how nearly 4,000 cases have been confirmed by Korean officials.

“Over in Korea right now, I know a lot of people are dealing with the coronavirus,” Im said through a translator. “And it’s kind of a huge deal with everybody. But I’m just glad as a Korean player that I can deliver some good news to the countrymen back home … to do something for the country and make everybody proud.”

Im shot a 4-under 66 on Sunday, finishing at 6 under to match the second-highest winning score since the Honda moved to PGA National in 2007. He was the tour’s rookie of the year last season, plus has played more tournaments and more rounds than anyone since the 2018-19 season began nearly a year and a half ago.

And now, he’s a winner — the seventh from South Korea to win on tour, and the Honda’s 10th international champion in the past 16 seasons. He’s also the fifth player to get that first win at PGA National in the Honda, joining Keith Mitchell in 2019, Michael Thompson in 2013, Y.E. Yang in 2009 and Mark Wilson in 2007.

“To come back and win at such a young age, it really means a lot,” Im said.

Im birdied four of his first five holes, then birdied two of the final four to finish off the victory and pick up $1.26 million.

Hughes, a Canadian who made the cut on the number Friday, shot his second consecutive 66. Playing alongside Im, he was part of some serious fireworks on the last two holes and missed a birdie putt at the par-5 finishing hole that would have gotten him into a tie for the top spot.

Fleetwood (71) was alone in third and is still seeking his first PGA Tour win. He started the day one shot clear of the field and started birdie-birdie to get to 7 under at that point — matching what was the low score in relation to par of the week.

Then, PGA National did what it usually does — that being not let anyone run away from the pack.

Fleetwood made bogey on the par-4 6th and couldn’t get up and down from a greenside bunker on the par-4 8th, giving back what was left of his lead at that point and sharing the top spot at 5 under with Im and Steele.

“I was going well,” Fleetwood said. “My swing wasn’t there today. It wasn’t like a comfortable day … things weren’t quite there, but I hung in well.”

Moments after Im finished, Fleetwood made a 25-footer for birdie on the par-3 17th to get to 5 under. But Fleetwood’s second on the par-5 finishing hole leaked right and splashed into the water, and once his attempt at a miracle hole-out after a drop from 120 yards didn’t fall, Im could finally exhale as the winner.

That’s when Im could hug his caddie in the locker room, where he watched the last 20 minutes or so on a monitor.

“I’ve been in this spot many times. … I just felt like the experience really helped,” Im said.

Some of Im’s best moments have come when no one has been looking.

He was third at the Zozo Championship in Japan last October, a finish totally overshadowed by Tiger Woods tying the PGA Tour record of 82 career victories. And in November, he went 3-1-1 to tie for the best showing by a player on the International team at the Presidents Cup, but the U.S. team captained by Woods rallied in singles on the final day to win the trophy at Royal Melbourne.

But this time, he was on center stage and embraced the moment.

Hughes and Im went to the par-3 17th green — the end of the “Bear Trap” three-hole stretch — in wildly different spots. Im stuck his tee ball to just inside of 8 feet, while Hughes had nearly 55 feet left from above the hole.

Hughes rolled in his most improbable birdie to an enormous roar, pulling into a tie with Im at 5 under.

If Im was worried, it didn’t show.

Im took a couple of looks at his downhill line, took his putter back just a couple of inches and watched the ball roll in for a birdie that allowed him to reclaim his lead at 6 under — this time, for good.

DIVOTS: Honda will remain the tournament’s namesake for a 40th consecutive year in 2021, extending the longest current run of title-sponsorship on tour. … Grayson Murray, who was 4 under on the par-3 17th in his first three rounds with an ace on Saturday, put his tee ball there in the water Sunday and made double bogey. … For the third consecutive year, no player had four rounds in the 60s on the par-70 track.

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