Im, Pan primed to lead Asia's Augusta charge

2021-04-05 12:07:06

Im Sung-jae tracks a shot during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational on March 8 in Orlando, Florida. [Photo/GETTY IMAGES] Pair's impressive performances last year bode well for Masters bid With spring in the air and the azaleas primed for a glorious bloom at Augusta National, the Masters returns to its usual April slot next week, with Asia dreaming that this could finally be its year in green. The Masters, which was co-founded by golf legend Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts in 1934, annually awards the champion with a Green Jacket, a prize coveted by every professional golfer along with the other three majors, the Players Championship and the PGA Tour's FedEx-Cup crown. Last year's 84th edition of the Masters saw the tournament staged for the first time in November due to the global impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The historic switch proved especially rewarding for the Asian contingent. It was indeed a magical week for South Korea's Im Sung-jae. Already established as one of the game's rising stars, Im cemented his major credentials by finishing joint runner-up in his debut at Augusta National. World No 1 Dustin Johnson won by five strokes for his first Green Jacket and 24th PGA Tour career victory. The 23-year-old Im showed his prodigious talents once again with four sublime rounds of 66, 70, 68 and 69 for a 15-under total. On a different occasion, it could have earned him a life-changing victory. Im still made history, though, eclipsing KJ Choi's third-place finish in 2004 as Asia's best performance at the Masters. Asia's longing for a second major champion after YE Yang's triumph at the 2009 PGA Championship will also rest on the slender shoulders of Chinese Taipei's CT Pan, who also enjoyed a standout Masters debut five months ago. The 29-year-old Pan produced some of his best golf with his controlled iron display and even-keeled temperament to finish an impressive tied-seventh, which guaranteed a quick return to the tournament. Aside from Im and Pan, Kim Si-woo, who bagged his third tour title in January, and Hideki Matsuyama of Japan will attempt to do Asia proud. Im, the 2019 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year and winner of The Honda Classic last season, simply can't wait to tee up again on the hallowed turf of Augusta. "Finishing tied for second is unbelievable, and I'm proud. My initial goal at the start of the week was just to make the cut and get into the weekend," he said. As a young boy, Im grew up watching the Masters in the early hours of the morning in South Korea with his late father and older brother. Having a front-row seat watching Johnson dominate, showed what he needs to improve on to get the deal done the next time he is in contention. "Dustin definitely plays at another level. He was long and accurate. Just watching him play, he makes the game look so easy," said Im, who became the third-youngest player after Jordan Spieth and Tiger Woods to finish in the top five at the Masters. Pan's return to his second Masters will very much produce the same feelings as the first time. His game wasn't sharp heading into his debut last November and despite the impressive finish, it failed to ignite his 2021 campaign until recently where he finished tied-third at the Honda Classic two weeks ago. Happy thoughts will certainly fill his mind in his drive up Magnolia Lane again. "It was an amazing week. As a kid, the first major I watched on TV was the Masters, which always meant more than the other majors because I grew up watching it. "I remember all the holes, especially on the back nine. It's nice I've been there for the first time and had such a great performance which means a lot. "Personally, I've been struggling in the majors which is weird as I've always thought I'd be a good player for the majors and I've not performed my best. "Finishing top-10 is a good confidence boost," added Pan, who has two other made cuts from his 10 major appearances. Pan reckons soaking up the Masters experience, which included sampling Augusta National's famous pimento cheese sandwich, played a part in his success. "Can't wait to go back there for the food. We had some wonderful fillet mignon steak and I loved the pimento cheese sandwich and egg sandwich. I think I tried all the sandwiches they had," enthused Pan. "Being a first-timer, I did not have much expectation and that mindset helped me a lot as I was able to enjoy myself being out there. Everything clicked. "I was sightseeing quite a bit, enjoying the memories of being at the Masters which I grew up watching with my father and brother. It was an unbelievable experience and it was really cool. "Getting back to the Masters is the best reward for four hard days of playing. Back home, people watch the Masters more than any other (golf) event. I obviously wish my dad was still in this world to watch me. After I finished four rounds, my brother texted me as it was an emotional week for him too." The writer is senior director of international marketing and communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur.