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At home: South Korean Im takes the lead in the Masters on the first day

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — With all eyes on Tiger Woods, Sungjae Im quietly turned the day around at Augusta National.

No surprise, really.

The 24-year-old South Korean feels right at home.

A runner-up 17 months ago on his Masters debut, Im posted a 5-under 67 on Thursday to take the lead all to himself.

There’s 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 interpreter. “I feel like I can play well here every time.”

It has to run in the family.

In Wednesday’s par 3 match, Jitaek Im was the youngest of his son. On the last hole, Sungjae let his father tee off.

Jitaek delivered a wild swing, almost like he was trying to hit a baseball, but the ball hovered above the water and settled about 5 feet from the flagstick.

“I didn’t expect much,” Sungjae said. “But once he hit the shot, it was the best shot I’ve seen. It was like a professional shot.

I landed a lot of great shots when it really mattered.

He got off to a flying start, birdying the first three holes. Another birdie at No. 7 sent him trailing 4 under.

Im stumbled a little after the turn, making back-to-back bogeys at 10 and 11, but then delivered his best shot of the day at the par-5 No. 13. From 222 yards, he pinned it 12 feet from the flag and rolled in the putt for the eagle.

Another birdie on the 15th and a brilliant save from the bunker on the final hole – he nearly broke through with his sand wedge and tapped it for par – gave him a one-stroke lead over Cameron Smith, with Dustin Johnson making part of group two draws back to 69.

If this sounds familiar, it should be.

In 2020, Johnson won his first green jacket with a dominating performance, while Smith and Im were five shots behind in second place at November’s inaugural Masters.

“There’s a coincidence there,” Im said. “It’s pretty cool to see we’re all up there together.”

I missed the cut at the 2021 Masters with rounds of 77 and 80, and came into this year’s tournament struggling a bit with his game – especially off the tee.

“I felt like my driving game wasn’t as up to par as it used to be, so I worked on my driving,” Im said. “The key to a successful round was having good tee shots, so it worked out well today.”

Indeed, he was one of the most accurate drivers of the day, hitting 12 of the 14 fairways. Only five players ranked above him.

I said it was important “to put the shot in places where I have a chance to attack the green”.

A year ago, Hideki Matsuyama became the first Japanese golfer to win the Masters.

Im doesn’t want to get ahead of himself, but he knows no South Korean golfer has ever won at Augusta.

In fact, YE, Yang remains the only male golfer in Im Country to win a major title, memorably rallying to beat Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship.

Woods, 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 return is what most patrons will remember from the first day of the Masters.

Maybe Sunday night they’ll be focused on Im.

“We’re only one day away,” he said. “I still have three days to play. I just want to keep this momentum going and try to finish this week well.

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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More AP Masters: https://apnews.com/hub/the-masters




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