Im’s major step, Euro ire, loner Koepka: Golf talking points

HONG KONG (AFP) – A top rookie is already tasting PGA Tour glory, a prominent commentator is causing consternation and one player says he likes being lonely at the top – here are AFP Sport’s three talking points in golf this week.

Im Sung-jae’s maiden United States (US) PGA victory at the Honda Classic on Sunday is kindling hopes that South Korea’s men may start to match the exploits of their female compatriots on the world stage.

The 21-year-old 2019 PGA Tour rookie of the year and 2018 web.com Tour player of the year is emerging as a golfing phenomenon.

He had seven top-10s last season, a best of tied third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and finished 19th in the FedEx Cup after becoming the first rookie to reach the season-ending Tour Championship.

Since then Im has placed second at the Sanderson Farms Championship, tied with Rory McIlroy for third at the Zozo Championship and in between won the sole event he played on the Korea PGA Tour, the Genesis Championship in October.

If Im, who now qualifies for next month’s US Masters, could follow with a major he may prove as big a catalyst for men’s golf as Pak Se-ri was more than two decades ago for South Korea’s women, who now dominate the sport.

Im Sung-jae. PHOTOS: AFP
Brooks Koepka

Pak’s rookie LPGA Tour season victory in the 1998 US Open made her the first Asian to win the oldest women’s major and sparked a South Korean boom that shows no sign of slowing. Eight of the current women’s world’s top 20 are from South Korea, including current number one Ko Jin-young.

Just three of the country’s men are in the top 100, with Im leading the way at 25th.

Asia’s only men’s major winner was a Korean, YE Yang at the 2009 US PGA Championships, and the portents look good for Im to follow in his footsteps.

Yang coincidentally won his first US PGA Tour crown at the 2009 Honda Classic, at the same PGA National course in Palm Beach, before his major breakthrough later that year.

Player-turned-commentator Paul Azinger was labelled as “embarrassing” by Ian Poulter as Tommy Fleetwood failed to record his first PGA Tour win on Sunday.

Azinger, who in 2008 captained the US team to one of their rare Ryder Cup victories in the last 20 years, said on network NBC that Fleetwood choked under pressure to prove himself “at the highest level” because “you can win all you want on the European Tour… but you have to win on the PGA Tour”.

Poulter led a social media backlash. “Paul please do not condescend or disrespect the @EuropeanTour and our players like that,” he tweeted.

World number 10 Fleetwood, runner-up in two majors, is no choker. He has won five times on the European Tour and in the 2018 Ryder Cup with British Open Champion Francesco Molinari formed the first partnership to win all four matches.

“We have slapped you in Ryder Cup for so long. I know you captained a win but seriously that was embarrassing today,” added Poulter.

Brooks Koepka said he is back to full fitness, four-and-a-half months after limping out of the CJ Cup in Korea with a knee injury that forced him to miss the Presidents Cup.

But his form is taking longer to get back to the heights that propelled him to four majors.

Koepka is yet to record a top 10 in four starts in 2020, missing the cut at last week’s Honda Classic, and he has slipped to third in the world rankings behind Rory McIlroy and John Rahm.

“I wouldn’t be playing if I couldn’t play or if there was pain or if I didn’t feel like I could come out here and compete at my best. I’ve just played bad,” Koepka, who will tee up at this week’s Bay Hill Invitational, told The PGA Tour website.