Four years after ‘No,’ this unlikely PGA Tour pairing represents validation

Sungjae Im and Keith Mitchell are partnering for next week's Zurich Classic.

Sungjae Im and Keith Mitchell are partnering for next week's Zurich Classic.

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HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. — The language barrier, Keith Mitchell says, will require plenty of non-verbal communication.

“A lot of smiling, a lot of fist-bumping, a lot of high-fives, a lot of thumbs ups. His English has gotten a lot better, and I don’t think we’ll have a problem talking golf. It’s just I don’t think we’ll be sharing recipes and cooking routines.”

On the surface, they don’t have much in common. Mitchell is a 31-year-old from Chattanooga, Tenn. As for his partner in next week’s Zurich Classic? That would be Sungjae Im, a 25-year-old from Cheongju, South Korea. The Zurich’s two-man format is a break from the Tour’s steady drumbeat of every-man-for-himself events and it presents an opportunity to form alliances — some obvious, others unlikely.

Matthew Fitzpatrick is partnering with his brother Alex. That one makes sense. Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele play together every Tuesday, team up at the Ryder and Presidents Cups and won the Zurich last season; their partnership makes sense, too. Steve Stricker was the U.S. captain in the most recent Ryder Cup and Zach Johnson is the U.S. captain in the upcoming Ryder Cup; that’s a fun and logical pair. As for Im and Mitchell? Both have become fan favorites individually. But their team took a little longer to come together.

Their story began, Mitchell says, in the third round of the 2019 Honda Classic, where the two were in the final group. Mitchell, like everybody on Tour, knew 21-year-old Im’s reputation, and seeing his game in person took things to another level. But it helped elevate his own game, too: Mitchell won his first PGA Tour title the very next day.

Mitchell so enjoyed the pairing that he reached out to see if Im would consider playing the Zurich as his partner, but no dice. Im was already promised to Whee Kim and, Mitchell thought, not particularly interested. That was that. The two didn’t discuss it again. That’s part of the fun of the Zurich: its prom-style social dynamics mean rejection is always on the table.

“Let’s put it this way: After I’d asked him the first time and he said no, I wasn’t going to ask him again,” Mitchell says with a laugh.

In 2020 (a couple of months after Im won the Honda — in Mitchell’s title defense), the Zurich was canceled. In 2021 Mitchell finished T4 with Brandt Snedeker. Im played with Ben An and missed the cut. In 2022 Mitchell and Snedeker missed the cut, while Im played with An again and finished T14.

Im’s star has continued to rise; he’s become a mainstay in the top 25 in the world. Mitchell has been catching up: his six top 10s in 2022 marked a career high. His fifth-place finish at this year’s Genesis Invitational elevated him to a career-best No. 44 in the World. His place in golf’s collective consciousness has elevated, too, as he’s become better known for his game (he’s one of the best drivers on Tour) and for his style (a throwback featuring a terrycloth visor, cashmere sweater and pleated pants). It was the former that apparently caught Im’s eye.

Mitchell didn’t have the Zurich Classic on his radar this year. But then, some three weeks before it was set to begin, he got a text from Sungjae via his agent.


Mitchell had to think about it for a moment. Adding Zurich would mean playing his 11th tournament in 14 weeks, a significant playing load entering the bulk of major championship season.

But soon he realized it was a no-brainer.

“Finally I realized, look, it’s too good to be true. To be able to team up with him at a fun tournament in New Orleans?”

The offer was also indicative of something else: validation. Mitchell knows Im wouldn’t have reached out unless he thought he was getting a proper partner. The stats have already demonstrated how good he’s gotten — seventh in strokes gained: off the tee this season and 24th in strokes gained: total — but it’s tough to beat the approval of your peers.

“I would love to think it’s a reflection of my game,” Mitchell says. “So when he chased me down, it was exciting on A, a friendship basis and B, a playing basis.”

The two have talked strategy; in the alternate shot format they’ll need to decide who will tee off on the odd vs. even holes.

“Sungjae doesn’t really have a weakness in his game, so if I can just show up — he just hits it so good, his ballstriking is incredible and he’s a good putter,” Mitchell says. “So we’ll look at the stats and our strengths and how that matches up with odd and even holes. It’ll mostly just mean finding my weaknesses and pairing them up with his strengths.”

Team bonding is already going well.

“Every time he sees me now he just smiles and says ‘partner!'”

And Mitchell is ready to take control of their celebrations.

“I’m probably going to pick him up if we win — or just if something good happens.”

Dylan Dethier

Dylan Dethier Editor

Dylan Dethier is a senior writer for GOLF Magazine/ The Williamstown, Mass. native joined GOLF in 2017 after two years scuffling on the mini-tours. Dethier is a graduate of Williams College, where he majored in English, and he’s the author of 18 in America, which details the year he spent as an 18-year-old living from his car and playing a round of golf in every state.

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