Sungjae Im was so dialed into his game that he didn’t realize how many birdies he was making in turning a shootout into a one-man show in Las Vegas.
Only when he saw a leaderboard after his big run was over — seven birdies in an eight-hole stretch around the turn Sunday at the TPC Summerlin — did it begin to sink in.
“When I saw that I was leading by five, I said to myself, ‘Let’s not make a mistake and I can get this done,'” he said.
By then, he had done all he needed. The 23-year-old South Korean closed with four safe pars for a 9-under 62 and a four-shot victory over Matthew Wolff in the Shriners Children’s Open.
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“Very meaningful win,” Im said. “It was hard coming, but I think today how everything went, I think it was a gift from above. I played so well and I’m glad I got the win.”
It was the best closing round by a winner in the Shriners Children’s Open since Smylie Kaufman shot 61 in 2016. Im finished at 24-under 260, matching the tournament record held by Webb Simpson (2013) and Ryan Moore (2012).
Wolff was trying to keep pace when he turned trouble into a birdie on the par-5 ninth with an 18-foot putt. But he was slowed by two tee shots that wound up in the worst of spots and led to bogeys he couldn’t afford.
Wolff made a pair of late birdies for a 68 — he’s now 12 for 12 with rounds in the 60s at Summerlin — and had to settle for a runner-up finish.
Im was among four players who had at least a share of the lead on the front nine of the TPC Summerlin on an ideal day of scoring with little wind.
When he holed a 12-foot birdie putt on the sixth hole, the third-toughest on the course, to tie for the lead, Im was just getting started.
He closed out the front nine with a simple up-and-down short of the green on the par-5 ninth to take the lead, then ran off four more birdies, the best of that lot on No. 10 when he went from a fairway bunker to 25 feet and made the putt.
“The lie was not great with the lip in front, but I got it up on the green and to make that putt for a birdie, I think that kind of gave me great confidence that I can get this done,” he said.
Im won for the second time on the PGA Tour, and while he’s not big into numbers, he couldn’t ignore the bizarre trend. He won the Honda Classic in 2020 in his 50th start on the PGA Tour. He won in Las Vegas in his 100th start.
Odds are he won’t have to wait 50 more tournaments for his next trophy.
He followed his victory in the Honda Classic with a third-place finish at Bay Hill, and then golf took a three-month hiatus because of the pandemic. He went five months without seriously contending again until the Masters in November, where he briefly challenged Dustin Johnson.
Now, he can only hope he’s about to hit his stride.
“I was on a really good roll and I was feeling great about my game after the Honda win and I played well in the Arnold Palmer as well the week following it,” Im said. “But it is unfortunate. It’s something that I couldn’t control. But after the pandemic, when golf was resumed, I really tried to find that rhythm again and there were times that was not easy.
“But, again, try to stay composed and believe in my game.”
Rory Sabbatini, the Olympic silver medalist from Slovakia, shot 28 on the front nine and was briefly tied for the lead. He could only manage even par on the back nine for a 64 and tied for third with Marc Leishman (63) and 54-hole leader Adam Schenk (70).
For Wolff, there wasn’t much he could do but smile.
“This game is like, when I’m in the lead or contention, someone just seems to go off the last day on me,” he said. One example would be Bryson DeChambeau shooting 67 in the final round at Winged Foot while playing in the final group with Wolff in the U.S. Open last year.
“But if I keep on putting myself in these positions I know that eventually it’s going to be in my favor and I’m going to win,” he said.
Sunday wasn’t that day, especially on the par-5 13th. He figured his 3-wood could easily clear the bunker on the left. And when it didn’t, he assumed it would roll back to the bottom of the sand and he still would have a reasonable chance at birdie.
Instead, he said someone left the rake at the top and the ball came to rest on a slope in an indentation left by the handle. All he could was get it out some 15 feet. Even with a good lie, catching Im was going to be tough.
Sam Burns, coming off a win last week in Mississippi and only two back starting the final round, made an early birdie and then stalled until it was too late. He finished with a double bogey for a 72 and tied for 14th.