Englishman splashes his last chance on 72nd hole at Honda Classic as South Korea’s Sungjae Im adds his name to PGA Tour’s growing list of 20-something champions
Still, after a final-round collapse Sunday in the Honda Classic here at PGA National (scores), Fleetwood remains the only non-winner on the PGA Tour listed among the top 20 of the Official World Golf Ranking. The 12th-ranked Fleetwood, 29, a five-time winner on his home European Tour, has made 64 starts on the PGA Tour – including 18 major championships and 18 WGCs – without crossing off that elusive first victory.
Twice, Fleetwood cracked the top five in the U.S. Open, including in 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, where he settled for a final-round 63 and one stroke behind winner Brooks Koepka when an 8-foot birdie putt failed to fall on the final hole.
Fast forward to Sunday in southeast Florida. The shaggy-haired Fleetwood claimed his first 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour stop at PGA National’s rugged Champion Course. He held a one-shot lead on playing competitor Brendan Steele and a two-shot cushion on fellow Englishmen Lee Westwood and Luke Donald to start the final round.
Fleetwood finished ahead of them, but he couldn’t handle two young upstarts. Sungjae Im, a 21-year-old South Korean, and Mackenzie Hughes, a 29-year-old Canadian, got hot playing together in front of Fleetwood. Each shot 4-under 66, and Fleetwood couldn’t answer with a 71.
Im birdied four of his first five holes and then, after three mid-round bogeys, steadied himself with birdies on both par 3s on the notorious “Bear Trap” closing stretch on Nos. 15-17. He won the $1.26 million first prize (plus a new car) by posting a 6-under-par 274. Hughes finished solo second at 275, one stroke ahead of Fleetwood, who could have tied Im with a birdie on the par-5 18th but fanned a fairway wood into the water from 235 yards out and made bogey, his fourth of the day.
“At the end of the day, I was really good mentally,” Fleetwood said. “I hung in until the end and gave myself a chance. I don’t feel like I’m getting worse at golf. I’ve just got to keep pushing.’’
He promises to keep doing that.
“I’ve had chances before, and hopefully I’ll continue to have chances,’’ Fleetwood said. “I’m looking forward to the challenge.’’
Fleetwood attributed his failure to get the job done to a lack of tournament play lately.
“I had a bit of a layoff and hadn’t played loads since the end of last year,’’ he said. “Coming out on such a tough golf course, and more than anything proving to yourself that your game is there in a good place, you’re going to move forward.’’
Fleetwood said his first PGA Tour triumph – whenever it might occur – would be a big steppingstone. “I’m not going to lie and say I don’t really mind about winning in America. Of course, I do. I want to win everywhere, and the PGA Tour is one of those places where I haven’t done it yet.’’
With the Players Championship coming up later this month at TPC Sawgrass and the Masters looming in April, Fleetwood will have some bigger stages to get that first victory on American soil.
The fields will be much stronger than what he faced at PGA National. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed were among those who bypassed the Honda Classic, and Brooks Koepka, Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose were among those who didn’t survive the 36-hole cut. McIlroy will be the defending champion this week in the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill in Orlando.
The youngsters who ruled at PGA National, though, will represent a new generation on the PGA Tour, especially Im. In 2018, he won twice on the PGA Tour’s top developmental circuit, known then as the Web.com Tour. In the 2018-19 season, he earned seven top-10 finishes in an ironman-like 35 starts on the PGA Tour and was named rookie of the year.
Im, at age 21 years, 11 months and 2 days, won the Honda in his 50th career start. He’s the youngest PGA Tour champion since Joaquin Niemann won at Greenbrier at age 20 years, 10 months and 8 days and the fifth at 22 or younger to win since July, joining Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland, last week’s winner in Puerto Rico.
After a runner-up and a third-place result in six starts in the fall, Im started 2020 slowly. He had only one finish better than 20th in six starts this year before breaking through at the Honda Classic.
“I had a few good chances that slipped away,” Im said through an interpreter, “but I'm still very grateful that I could win at such a young age. To have it happen as fast as it did, I'm very happy and satisfied.”
It’s a feeling that Tommy Fleetwood can only imagine.
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