World Rank Top 30: The Changing Face of Golf

Young Guns

There are seven players among the top 30 in the world golf rankings who have yet to hit their 26th birthday. Everyone is buzzing about 25-year-old Scottie Scheffler after his dominant victory at The Masters. And Collin Morikawa (also 25), with 5 tour wins including two major championships, lived up to everyone’s expectations by closing with a brilliant final round 67 to record a Top 5. But the next big story may well come from one of the three youngest members of this talented group. Sungjae Im, who just turned 24, has accumulated 24 Top 10 finishes in his early career, the same number as Morikawa and one more than Scheffler. Also keep a sharp eye on Victor Hoveland and Joaquin Niemann. Niemann, the youngest of the group at 23, has recorded 20 Top 10’s including a pair of wins. Hoveland, at 24, has notched 3 wins on tour with 12 additional Top 10’s, and has made the cut in 54 of his 60 Tour starts (90%), a figure that surpasses even Morikawa (89%). So, who are these guys? Flying under the radar, they each learned the game abroad, and followed different paths on their journey to the PGA Tour—but don’t be too surprised if one of them suddenly jumps up and flashes across your screen on Sunday next month at the PGA Championship.

Sungjae Im (Age 24/No. 19 in the World Rankings)

Sungjae Im grew up in South Korea. Both of his parents were avid golfers, so he became interested in the game as soon as he could walk and started hitting balls at 4 years old. Sungjae had the gift, so he attended the Korea National Sport University and was named to the South Korean National team in 2014 at 16 years old. In 2015, he received an exemption to play an event on the Japan Tour, and shortly thereafter turned pro. In 2017, at 18 years old, Sungjae played a full year on the Japan Tour and made the most of it, finishing among the top 15 on the money list—which gained him eligibility for the 2018 Korn Ferry Tour season. Blazing right out of the blocks, Sungjae won the first tournament he entered, finished second the following week, and ended the year at No.1 on the Korn Ferry money list while taking home Player of the Year honors—which qualified him for the 2019 PGA Tour season. Talk about a fast track.

Sungjae Im

Once again Sungjae jumped on his opportunity, entering 35 Tour events while making the cut in 26 of them. He recorded 7 Top 10’s, including a T4 in his first event (The Safeway Open), T3 at Bay Hill and a T4 at the Valspar, culminating in a trip to the Tour Championship. In 2020 he had to back it down to 26 events (due to COVID cancellations), but made the cut in 21 of them while recording his first Tour win (The Honda), and tacked on 6 additional Top 10’s—once again getting to the Tour Championship, where he finished 11th.

In 2021 Sungjae ramped back up to 35 Tour events, and made the cut 29 times. His win at the Honda got him into the Masters, and again he made the most of it by finishing in a tie for second behind Dustin Johnson. He then added a T5 at the Tournament of Champions, a 3rd at the BMW, and his third consecutive trip to the Tour Championship.

As the 2022 season rolls through the Spring, Sungjae shows no sign of slowing down. He’s entered 15 events and made the cut in 13 of them, adding his second win (The Shriner’s) and 4 additional Top 10’s-including a T8 at the Masters. With his foot pressed firmly on the gas, Sungjae Im seems determined to add a major championship to his resume in the near future—and based on what he has done thus far, I would not bet against him.

Joaquin Niemann (Age 23/N0. 16 in the World Rankings)   

Joaquin Niemann was born in Santiago, Chile, and he’s the youngest of this stellar group. Like Sungjae Im, Joaquin was swinging a club from the time he could walk (his father gave him a plastic club when he was two years old). Athletics in general was integral to the Niemann family (his mom was a member of the Chilean National Field hockey Team, and his dad played college basketball), but for Joaquin it was always all about golf. He attended a high school for athletes, and the golf program provided him the opportunity to compete in Junior golf championships all over the world—and he won a boatload of them. At 18 years old, Joaquin became the No. 1 ranked amateur in world, and held that position for 48 weeks before turning pro to compete at the Valero Texas Open—where at 19 years old he finished 6th. He entered 11 more events in the 2018 season, making the cut in 9 of them (including 4 Top 10’s) while earning his tour card in record time. In the 2019 season, still only 19 and sporting braces, Joaquin played 28 events—and made the cut 21 times while adding 4 more top 10’s. The following year Joaquin recorded his first Tour win at The Greenbrier (by a whopping 6 shots), joining Tiger, Phil, Rory and Jordan Spieth among the short list of players to win before their 21st birthday. He then added 4 more Top 10’s, including a T5 at the Heritage, a T3 at the BMW, and a trip to the Tour Championship.

Joaquin Niemann

2021 was a breakout season for Niemann. He made the cut in 26 of the 27 Tour events he entered, and recorded 5 Top 10’s, including 3 runner-up finishes (The Tournament of Champions, Sony Open and Rocket Mortgage), while making it to the Tour Championship once again.

The 2022 season is shaping up to be another big year for Joaquin, recording his second Tour victory (The Genesis Invitational) with 2 additional Top 10’s (a T5 at Mayakoba and a T6 at The Farmers). Currently at No. 13 in the FedEx Cup standings, look for Niemann to challenge at the majors this year—and perhaps the PGA Championship will be his biggest moment yet.

Viktor Hoveland (Age 24/No. 5 in the World Rankings)

Born and raised in Oslo Norway, Viktor Hoveland first gained notoriety by winning the Norwegian Amateur in 2014 at the age of 16. He then brought his talent to the U.S., accepting a golf scholarship to Oklahoma State University, where he was named a first team All-American in his sophomore year. In 2018, Viktor won the U.S. Amateur Championship, and became the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world in April of 2019. As the Amateur champ, Hovland gained entrance to the 2019 Masters, making the cut and finishing as low amateur (3 under par). He also competed at the 2019 U.S. Open as an amateur, opening eyes with a T12 at Pebble Beach. Following the Open, Viktor turned pro and made six starts in the remaining 2019 season—making the cut in all six and closing with a T4 at the Wyndham.

Viktor Hoveland

In 2020 (his first full year on Tour), Viktor recorded an early win at the Puerto Rico Open—only his sixteenth professional start. He then added 2 more Top 10’s, including a 3rd at the Workday Charity Open, and capped it off by getting to the Tour Championship. In the 2021 season Hoveland recorded his second Tour win (The Mayakoba Classic), and made the cut in 22 of 24 events he played with six additional Top 10’s, including 2 runner-up finishes, 2 T3’s and a T5 at the Tour Championship.

This year Viktor has been even more impressive with another win (back-to-back at Mayakoba), 10 of 11 cuts made, and 3 more Top 10’s including a T2 at Bay Hill. Currently at No. 7 in the FedEx Cup standings, and ninth on Tour in scoring average, Viktor Hoveland is primed for an assault on the majors—and it would be hard to find a nicer young man to pull for.

As the Tour continues to take on an international flavor, these three talented young men who hail from the far corners of the world are changing the face of golf—and fans will enjoy their thrilling play for many years to come.

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