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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sungjae Im might be the only player in this year’s Masters field for whom a green jacket would be a stepping stone, not a career pinnacle.
After two full rounds, Im sits at -8, just one stroke off the lead. He carded a 6 under first round in the course of eight holes on Thursday and 10 on Friday, and then added a 2 under second right afterward. Not bad for his first trip to Augusta National.
Im wants to win the Masters, yes. Who wouldn’t? But he has a larger goal in mind: an Olympic medal. If he’s able to win one next year at the Tokyo Olympics, he stands a very good chance of exempting out of mandatory 18- to 21-month military service in his native Korea. Under Korean law, he must enlist by the time he turns 28; he’s currently 22.
However, due to a rule implemented in 1973 by former Korean president Park Chung-hee, athletes who achieve international distinction by medaling in the Olympics or the Asian Games can earn an exemption from the conscription requirements, and the mandatory time away from the game of golf in his prime.
“As far as I know, the Masters does not make me exempt for the military,” Im said through a translator after his round. “It's only a medal in the Olympics.”
That’s enough of a motivation to get you to go to work, and Im has. Over the last two-plus seasons, no one on the PGA Tour has played in more tournaments than Im. He’s currently the top-ranked Korean player at 25, well ahead of Byeong Hun An at 67 and Sunghoon Kang at 81. That should have been enough to qualify him for the Olympics this year, and might still for 2021, but the pandemic had its way.
That was about the only way to shut down Im’s barnstorming. He’s ground his way through tournaments large (seven majors, including this Masters) and small (out of respect, we won’t name them), and he’s won one of them — the Honda Classic earlier this year, coming in right under the wire to earn his way into his first Masters.
“I think it was a valuable experience being able to play in those events,” Im said. “So I really feel like I’m prepared this week.”
Im, an avowed foodie, has another task on his to-do list: try a pimento cheese sandwich. He hasn’t yet had the opportunity to sample Augusta National’s most famous dish. Regardless, after a long Friday, he needs a break.
“I played 28 holes today, so I have to be honest, I’m a bit tired,” he said. “But I want to rest up and get ready for the weekend.”
This weekend, Augusta; next summer, the world.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee and contact him with tips at email@example.com.
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