AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — With all eyes on Tiger Woods, Sungjae Im quietly turned in the round of the day at Augusta National.
Not a surprise, really.
The 24-year-old South Korean feels right at home.
A runner-up 17 months ago in his Masters debut, Im posted a 5-under 67 Thursday to grab the lead all to himself.
Still a long way to go, but there’s obviously something about this course that suits Im’s game.
“I feel comfortable when I come to Augusta,” he said through his translator. “I feel I can play well here every time.”
It must run in the family.
During the par 3 contest on Wednesday, Jitaek Im served as his son’s caddie. At the final hole, Sungjae let his dad take the tee shot.
Jitaek delivered a wild swing, almost like he was trying to slug a baseball, but the ball soared over the water and settled about about 5 feet from the flag.
“I didn’t expect much,” Sungjae said. “But once he hit the shot, it was the most beautiful shot I’ve seen. It was like a professional shot.”
Im hit a lot of beautiful shots when it really counted.
He got off to a blazing start, making birdies at the first three holes. Another birdie at No. 7 sent him to the back side at 4 under.
Im stumbled a bit after the turn, making back-to-back bogeys at 10 and 11, but then he delivered his best shot of the day at the par-5 No. 13. From 222 yards, he stuck it 12 feet from the flag and rolled in the putt for eagle.
Another birdie at the 15th and a brilliant save from the bunker at the final hole — he nearly holed out with his sand wedge and tapped it for par — gave him a one-stroke lead over Cameron Smith, with Dustin Johnson part of the group two shots back at 69.
If that sounds familiar, it should.
In 2020, Johnson won his first green jacket with a dominating performance, while Smith and Im were five shots back in the runner-up slot at the first November Masters.
“There is a coincidence there,” Im said. “It’s pretty cool to see that we’re all up there together.”
Im missed the cut at the 2021 Masters with rounds of 77 and 80, and arrived at this year’s tournament struggling a bit with his game — especially off the tee.
“I felt like my driving game was not as up to par as what it used to be, so I worked on my driving,” Im said. “The key to a successful round was having good tee shots, so that worked well today.”
Indeed, he was one of the day’s most accurate drivers, hitting 12 of 14 fairways. Only five players ranked above him.
Im said it’s important “to put the shot into spots where I have a chance to attack the green.”
A year ago, Hideki Matsuyama became the first golfer from Japan to win the Masters.
Im doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he knows that no South Korean golfer has ever won at Augusta.
In fact, Y.E, Yang remains the only male golfer from Im’s country to capture a major title, memorably rallying to beat Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship.
Woods, who is playing for the first time since a February 2021 wreck left him with serious leg injuries, was four shots behind Im after shooting 71.
Wood’s comeback is what most patrons will remember from Day 1 of the Masters.
Maybe by Sunday evening, they’ll be focused on Im.
“We’re only one day in,” he said. “I’ve got three more days to play. I just want to keep this momentum going and try to finish well this week.”
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Paul Newberry, The Associated Press