Sungjae Im is nearly two years younger than reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Will Zalatoris and more than a year younger than wunderkind and two-time major winner Collin Morikawa. It often does not feel this way because Im has been a prominent player on the PGA Tour for several years as evidenced by the fact that he won his second Tour event in his 100th PGA Tour start on Sunday at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open.
We tend to evaluate a player's age by how long they have been in our lives. Zalatoris, even though he's significantly older (in sports years) than Im seems younger because we have spent less time with him. Im has played at the highest level -- and often -- ffor several years now which, like players such as Matthew Wolff (22) and Joaquin Niemann (22), belies his actual age. Justin Ray summed it up well in this tweet
There are a number of different ways to look at this, and the first is the most obvious. Im is still super young and has a ton of growing to do until he becomes fully formed as a PGA Tour contender. The stats would back this up. Im's strokes gained on approach shots and off the tee have improved season over season during the stretch from 2019-2021. That implies a higher ceiling than what he's reached.
The other way to view this is that he's played 100 PGA Tour events, which is a lot, and has won two of them, which is a decent amount for a golfer in 2021. While he may have up-and-down years over the next decade, the player we have seen over his first 100 tournaments in the best league in the world is more or less the player he's going to be for most of his career. Age gets tossed around as barometer for what could be when players are in their early 20s in all of sports, but most of the time that's simply because we don't have a big sample size of reality. It's easy to dream on the future when nothing has taken place in the present, which is not true in Im's case.
As is almost always the case with situations like this is that the truth probably falls somewhere in the middle. Im's statistical trajectory does imply that he's making marginal (but significant!) improvements, but 100 events is 100 events. Im is a good golfer, but the question now is whether he can be a great one, as Golf Channel analyst Trevor Immelman implied when he said on Sunday during the broadcast that Im could reach No. 1 in the world some day.
Im is currently ranked No. 21 in the Official World Golf Rankings, which is a fabulous achievement. It also means there's a large, Jon Rahm-sized gulf between where he is now and removing the "2" in that number and making it simply, No. 1.
It's a fun exercise to think about, though, and Rahm is an interesting barometer. I took Im as well as all the other golfers currently age 25 or younger and currently in the top 50 in the OWGR and projected the probability that they reach No. 1 in the OWGR at any point in their careers. Here's how I would rank them in the fall of 2021 with so many possibilities and various outcomes in front of them.
Collin Morikawa (24 years old): It seems inevitable that the 24-year-old Morikawa would eventually rise to No. 1 barring a Tiger Woods-like run from Rahm at the top (which could theoretically preclude everyone on this list from reaching No. 1 and is also not that far outside the realm of possibility). From tee to green, Morikawa is mostly Rahm's equal, even though he does it a bit differently. He also has the titles to back up his statistical profile. Current ranking: No. 3 | Probability: 80%
Viktor Hovland (24): He is nearly Morikawa's equal from tee to green, but to reach No. 1 his short game will have to improve quite a bit and he'll have to become a bit more consistent at the majors. The tools are there, and so is the drive. His ranking as the second-highest on this list in the current OWGR matches his odds of reaching No. 1. Current ranking: 15 | Probability: 30%
Sam Burns (25): Burns has been on a heater of late, and he's clearly improved every facet of his game over the last two years. But No. 1 in the world? He was a negative strokes gained on approach player for three straight years from 2018-2020. We don't have all the data on that from every No. 1 player ever, but most of the players who ascended to No. 1 in the world have foretold their arrival with their statistical profile years in advance. Burns can reach the top 10, but he's not a No. 1-type guy. Current ranking: 18 | Probability: 1%
Sungjae Im (23): Only 24 golfers in history have ever been the No. 1 player in the world. Phil Mickelson was never No. 1. It's part luck, part skill, part timing and it would be a surprise if Im, even as a consistent top-20 guy, ever reached that position. His statistical profile is extremely good, and he's performed well at the majors and can win a major at some point. But No. 1 in the world? That's truly rare air, and I don't see it with him. Current ranking: 21 | Probability: 2%
Scottie Scheffler (25): He's a lot longer off the tee than most of the guys on this list, and he was a plus in every strokes gained category last season, but he's going to have to get one win before we start making declarations of No. 1. Current ranking: 23 | Probability: 1%
Joaquin Niemann (22): The numbers are extraordinary, his ball flight perhaps even more so. He's also such a joy to watch when he's feeling it. However, I think he's another in that Burns-Im class where you can envision him being No. 8 in the world but not necessarily No. 1. Current ranking: 30 | Probability: 2%
Will Zalatoris (25): We have the least amount of PGA Tour data on Zalatoris, which could benefit him. His numbers are astounding. He was actually better than Rahm on approach shots last season, though he trailed mightily off the tee. If he was 21 years old and not 25, I'd be more inclined to give him a nod. Current ranking: 31 | Probability: 2%
Matthew Wolff (22): His numbers aren't as good as most of the other players on this list, but there's some magic in there. He's still so young -- the youngest on this list other than Garrick Higgo -- and the gifts, anecdotally, are magnificent. I think you'd like to see the trajectory develop a bit over the next 2-3 years as he hopefully settles nicely into PGA Tour life, but his ceiling is higher than everybody here other than Morikawa and possibly Hovland. Current ranking: 33 | Probability: 4%
Garrick Higgo (22): He's been a good player thus far, but nothing about his statistical profile or pedigree suggests that he will ever be the No. 1 player in the world. In fact, it would be a bit of a surprise if he ever rose into the top 10 in the OWGR. Current ranking: 49 | Probability: <1%