Asia’s quest for a first winner at the World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play endured mixed fortunes on Wednesday, with one defeat, one tie and one winner emerging from the first round matches.
Korea’s Sungjae Im, who has led the Total Birdies category on the PGA Tour for the past two seasons and currently leads this season as well, made four birds and survived some late nerves in his tournament debut to see off American Russell Henley 1-up in his Group 16 match at Austin Country Club.
Countryman Si Woo Kim came agonisingly close to a winning start in Group 5 following a topsy-turvy match with Europe’s Ryder Cup star, Tommy Fleetwood and settled for a tie when the Englishman holed a 10-foot birdie on the last.
Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who is the region’s third representative in the US$10.5 million showpiece, lost his opening Group 10 match 4 & 3 to Carlos Ortiz in an encounter which the Mexican rising star seized the initiative with an opening birdie and never looked back.
Following a memorable debut in the Presidents Cup in 2019 where he scored 3.5 points for the International Team, the 22-year-old Im entered the week with full of hope and began his match on a strong note with a 20-foot birdie on the 1st hole to lead 1-up. He converted a 14-footer on 7 to extend his advantage and a bogey by Henley on 9 saw the Korean rising star lead 3-up at the turn. Henley fought back by winning the next two holes but Im hung on for the important win after his American opponent missed a 13-foot birdie opportunity at the last green to force a tie.
“Although I led 3-up at first, it was a very close game on the back nine. I was a little bit nervous but I really enjoyed it and it was fun,” said Im, who next faces International teammate Marc Leishman on Thursday.
"Compared to stroke play, I don’t need to feel like I’m being chased and rush my game. However, I still need to beat my opponent and because of that, I have some tension in my game." – Sungjae Im
“Most of all, I won my first game. This is a good start for the group stage. I have two more matches to play, so I will have to keep my focus and hope to have opportunities to win those matches and advance.”
In the tournament’s history, Japan’s Hideto Tanihara came closest to challenging for the title when he made it all the way into the Semifinals in 2017, losing to eventual winner Dustin Johnson, who is the top-seed here this week.
Nicknamed the “Ironman”, Im is enjoying his first visit to Austin Country Club which he described as a perfect course that fits his aggressive style of play. He is also using his Presidents Cup experience to spur his chase for a first World Golf Championships title. Only Matsuyama has won two WGC titles for Asia in the past.
“I think this course fits match play. There are some short holes and some holes that we need to play it safe. It’s a combination of those various type of holes and it’s fun to play,” he said. “I played well in the Presidents Cup and secured three wins. Every hole in match play is very important, so that’s the main difference between match play and stroke play. Compared to stroke play, I don’t need to feel like I’m being chased and rush my game. However, I still need to beat my opponent and because of that, I have some tension in my game. But I really like everything about match play.”
Kim, who won his third PGA Tour title earlier this year and finished top-10 at The Players Championship two weeks ago, next plays fifth-ranked Bryson DeChambeau on Thursday, with the American power hitter keen to bounce back from a shock opening loss to debutant Antoine Rozner.
Matsuyama plays left-hander Brian Harman next in a match he needs to also win to keep alive his hopes of progressing beyond the group stages.