AVONDALE, La. – Did Sungjae Im and Keith Mitchell just become best friends at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans?
“I’ve always been his best friend,” Mitchell said. “I just wanted him to like me back.”
The first-time partners in the PGA Tour’s only two-man team event sure played like bosom buddies during the first round on Thursday at TPC Louisiana, carding nine birdies, an eagle and a chip-in par by Im at the last to shoot a best-ball total of 10-under 62 to share the early lead with brothers Alex and Matt Fitzpatrick and David Lipsky and Aaron Rai.
“He hit a bunch of laser beams and smiled, and I just tried to help when I could,” Mitchell said.
Im, a 25-year-old two-time winner on the PGA Tour, and Mitchell, 31, first played together in the third round of the 2019 Honda Classic, which Mitchell went on to win for his lone Tour title.
“All he did was just smile and high five and stripe it. I was like, man, this guy is going to be really good,” Mitchell recalled. “So jokingly one day, I was like, hey, we need to play Zurich.”
Unfortunately, Im already had committed to playing with Whee Kim that year. Mitchell figured that was that. In 2020, the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19 and the past two years Mitchell has partnered with Brandt Snedeker, who has been sidelined most of the season with an injury, while Im played with fellow South Korean native Ben An.
“After I’d asked him the first time and he said no, I wasn’t going to ask him again,” Mitchell told Golf.com last week.
About a month ago, Im texted his interest in teaming up this week through his agent and Mitchell, who is playing his 11th tournament in the last 14 weeks, couldn’t resist the opportunity to pair with the No. 18 player in the world.
“When you have the opportunity to play with such a superstar, you say yes,” Mitchell said.
In the lead up to the tournament, Im and Mitchell made a humorous video that was posted to social media, where Im left an invite to be his partner in Mitchell’s locker. Mitchell checked the ‘yes’ box in red Sharpie and wrote in capital letters, “DUH!”
In the comments section to the Instagram post, Im wrote, “Let’s Goooo.”
They did just that racing to the top of the leaderboard. Starting on the back nine at the Pete Dye-designed layout, Im and Mitchell made five birdies before they both made bogey at the first hole. But they rebounded by playing the next six holes in six under, including a 31-foot eagle at the par-5 seventh by Mitchell, who called it his biggest contribution of the round.
That and teaching Im about college football and in particular his alma mater, the defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs.
“He’s now the biggest Georgia fan in South Korea. He’s a Georgia resident now. That helps,” Mitchell said.
But when Mitchell asked him if he’d join him at a Georgia game this fall, Im demurred.
“Busy,” he said.
“He’d come,” Mitchell said. “He plays golf every week. I don’t think he has time.”
— Golf on CBS (@GolfonCBS) April 20, 2023