ATLANTA — Sungjae Im looked up from his bowl of sizzling pork pieces and grinned. “No. 1,” he said, adding a thumbs-up for emphasis.
It’s not easy being a 21-year-old professional golfer living out of a suitcase in a strange land, navigating the toughest courses against top players week after week. But Tuesday night Im felt right at home in a back booth of Honey Pig, the Korean barbecue restaurant in an Atlanta suburb that he discovered through an internet search.
Had he been a Michelin reviewer, Im would have awarded the place three stars.
“The best food,” he said.
Im is the only PGA Tour rookie — and the only South Korean — to advance to this week’s Tour Championship, where he was tied for 13th after the second round on Friday, when he shot a one-over 71.
He is also the youngest in the field, 20 years junior to the eldest, Matt Kuchar. Im, who played on the tour’s minor-league circuit last season, was overshadowed all summer by two of the tour’s other fresh faces, Matthew Wolff, 20, and Collin Morikawa, 22, who both dashed straight from college to the winner’s circle.
Playing the tortoise to their hares, Im steadily strung together seven top-seven finishes this season — including a tie for third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational — over 34 tour starts, seven more than anyone else in the Tour Championship field. Along the way, he has staked a claim to rookie of the year honors, which will be decided in a vote of the tour players.
If he were to win, Im would be the first honoree who was born in Asia.
“It would be incredibly significant for me and something I’ll cherish for the rest of my life,” he said through an interpreter.
It sounded as if Im could count on a vote from Xander Schauffele, the 2017 recipient of the award.
“There’s always the talk of Morikawa and Wolff and them winning and he hasn’t,” Schauffele said on Thursday. “In my mind,” he added, “it would be hard to vote for anyone else just because he’s here and they’re not.”
Im has a swing as smooth as soju, the Korean version of vodka. Spectators who followed him during his first round, when he shot a three-under 67, marveled at his slow takeaway and the sound his ball made coming off the club face.
“He really flushes it,” said Corey Conners, the Canadian pro who played with Im on Thursday.
So deliberate is Im’s takeaway, Conners added, “you can’t start your walk when he takes back the club. You have to hold your position a little bit more.”
Im grew up on Jeju Island, which his manager, Rambert Sim, described as the Hawaii of South Korea. He took his first swings, with a plastic club, at age 3. Im enrolled at a golf academy in South Korea shortly before he entered his teenage years, turned pro at 17 and honed his game on the Japan Tour.
In late 2017, Im traveled straight from an event in Japan to Arizona, where he qualified the following week to play the 2018 season on the PGA Tour’s minor-league circuit, where he won his first start.
Both of Im’s parents were golf enthusiasts, but as Im’s game blossomed, they stopped playing. “Our only interest in the game now is watching him play,” Im’s father, Ji Taek, said through an interpreter.
Im’s parents have traveled with him this season, and he said he was grateful. “I feel alone without them,” Im said, adding that their presence keeps his stress level down.
His parents give him room to breathe, and become more independent. They will go sightseeing and leave him to practice.
“They’re great,” said Brian Vranesh, his caddie. “They’ll drop Sungjae off at the course most of the time, but I don’t see them until it’s game time on Thursday.”
Im’s favorite meal is Korean barbecue, but since arriving in the States he has developed a fondness for Subway steak sandwiches. Im also can’t get enough of the pristine practice greens at every tour stop. In South Korea, he explained, the courses he played didn’t have dedicated putting areas.
“Before I practiced my putting only on tournament weeks,” Im said. “That’s why I wasn’t the best putter. Now I’ve gotten better because I can practice my putting all the time in the States.”
Im hasn’t established a base in the United States, which partly explains how he became the lead vagabond in the tour’s band of road warriors. With nowhere to go on off weeks but back home to South Korea, Im chose to play on and on and on. In one eight-week stretch in the spring, he did not skip a tournament, which, he conceded, was probably too much of a good thing.
“More than six weeks is tough for me,” said Im, who has taken only one week off since mid-June. “Maybe next year five or six in a row, max.”
Im has spent so many nights in hotels this year that he would seem an ideal brand ambassador for either of his two preferred chains. After the Tour Championship ends on Sunday, Im and his parents plan to remain in the Atlanta area and hunt for a house.
Im said he had also considered living in Los Angeles because of its vibrant South Korean community. But after playing the tour stop there in February, he cooled on the idea.
“Too much traffic,” he said in perfect English, before Sim, who was interpreting, could answer.
The rush-hour commute to Honey Pig in Duluth — 24 miles from downtown Atlanta, where Im and his parents are staying this week — took more than an hour, but Im wasn’t complaining. He hardly spoke at all during dinner as he filled and refilled his bowl with grilled kimchi, bean sprouts and pork.
Though Im ventured out to the part of Duluth known as Koreatown before the tournament, once play started, K-town came to him. “I could hear them saying, ‘Keep fighting’ and saying my name,” Im said, referring to the Korean contingent in his gallery. “They were cheering for me a lot.”
Vranesh said he has no trouble communicating with Im, who he says is fluent in the language of golf. When all else fails, they rely on hand signals, perhaps none more so this season than the thumbs-up.