Korea’s band of brothers comprising Si Woo Kim, Sungjae Im and K.H. Lee will tee up in The Northern Trust starting Thursday with an opportunity to rewrite a small slice of FedExCup Playoffs history on the PGA Tour.
The Korean trio are ranked 30th, 31st and 34th respectively entering the first of three Playoffs event at Liberty National Golf Club in New Jersey and each have their sights set on qualifying for the TOUR Championship, which is exclusive to the top 30 players, and challenging for the season-long’s ultimate prize, the FedExCup.
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Following a decade of success led by trailblazer K.J. Choi, Korea’s winningest golfer with eight PGA Tour career titles, and Y.E. Yang, who is Asia’s first Major champion, the 26-year-old Kim, Im, who is 23, and Lee, the oldest at 29, have emerged as the next generation of Korean stars on the game’s biggest stage.
Choi and Yang made it all the way through to the TOUR Championship in 2011, which was the first time two Koreans had qualified for the Playoffs Finale in the same year. And now some 10 years later, Kim, Im and Lee can go one better.
The trio have often credited a strong Korean bond that exists on Tour for their combined success, with Kim claiming his third PGA Tour victory and Lee winning his first career title this season.
Im has registered four top-10s, including a runner-up finish at the Masters Tournament last November. Other Koreans on Tour include Sung Kang and Byeong Hun An, who is competing in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals to regain his Tour card after he finished outside the top-125 of the FedExCup points list for the first time in five years.
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“It seems like the Korean players are playing well this season. We get along by dining together from time to time and when one of us plays great, it motivates the other Korean players. I think it’s a very positive influence on Tour,” said Lee, who broke through at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May.
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Kim, who won The American Express in February and coming off a playoff loss at the Wyndham Championship last weekend, added: “After Sungjae got onto the Tour, we are always together playing in different events. I was very impressed when he won his first event (last year) and made many top 10s. He is doing great and he motivates me to push myself. I also want to play better and I wish we can influence one another for years to come.”
Smooth-swinging Im was the highest ranked Asian in 11th position in the final FedExCup standings last season. He had a brush with the FedExCup after entering the weekend rounds in second place at TOUR Championship. “My goal is to make it into TOUR Championship again,” said Im, the Tour’s rookie of the year in 2019. “It means a lot. It’s really hard to make top 30. If I can make it in three consecutive years, I will be very happy. My goal is the same, which is get into TOUR Championship and win my second tournament.”
No Asian golfer has lifted the FedExCup in its history, with Choi registering a fourth-place finish in the inaugural year in 2007. Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, the reigning Masters champion, entered the Playoffs ranked No. 1 in 2017 following the conclusion of the Regular Season before finishing eighth in the final standings.
Kim, Lee and Im are virtually assured of getting into next week’s BMW Championship at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owing Mills, which is limited to the top 70 and will then need to navigate their way to final stop of the 2020-21 Season at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta.
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Lee, who recently became a father for the first time in July, said it would be a dream come true if he can challenge for the FedExCup, which comes with a whopping top prize of US$15 million. “The FedExCup champion goes to a player who has performed marvelously all season. It is a reward to that one player who performed the best. Of course, the prize money is astronomical. But more than that, it is a way to prove I have been performing my best during the whole season. This will give me so much pride,” he said.
“It has been three years since I started playing on the PGA Tour and I got a chance to play in all three Playoffs. It feels great, especially this year where I have played better than previously. I’m excited and I’m feeling more confident.”
In 2016, Kim made it all the way to the TOUR Championship in his rookie season in which he won the Wyndham Championship and subsequently finished 17th in the final FedExCup standings. An appearance at East Lake will also ensure entry into all the big events of the new season.
“At the beginning of the season, this is that one thing that gets me nervous, whether I could make the playoffs or not. For this season, I trained a lot,” said Kim. “It has a lot of meaning to get into the TOUR Championship. We get chances to play in every tournament. All the players try really hard to get to Atlanta. I’m hanging near the 30th ranking so I wish to play good in next few events,” he said.
Like Lee, Kim said lifting the FedExCup has crossed his mind every now and then.
“I’ve not really thought about it until now. I just want to take it step by step. I always play to survive till the next event. If I can make it into the final event, I want to win. If I can win that, it will be a historical moment for Korean golf.”