From GREG BEACHAM, AP Sports journalist
LA QUINTA, California (AP) – Even though Sungjae Im hadn’t been on the PGA Tour long, the 22-year-old South Korean is already feeling terribly at ease on the American Express’ generous desert courses.
Make lots of other pros too, and that’s why the leaderboard is so full on the way to the weekend.
I shot a 7-under-65 on Friday in the American Express to take the lead over the first-lap leader Brandon Hagy and four others in one fell swoop.
Im, the 2019 Tour Rookie, had seven birdies in a bogey-free lap on the Stadium Course at PGA West, highlighted by three in four holes around the corner. After struggling with his putter for the past several weeks, he hit late in his round in a 22-foot and an 18-foot boat for consecutive birdies.
“Visually, it’s a place that I really like and like to play. I felt very comfortable during the entire round,” I said. “I like the two courses we’re playing this week and that has given me a good result.”
Hagy was in position to play under Im at 11, but he turned his final hole into the fairway bunker at a tee to finish his 70.
Canada’s Nick Taylor (66), South Korea’s Si Woo Kim (68), Tony Finau (66) and Mexico’s Abraham Ancer (65) were also 10 under. Emiliano Grillo (66), Francesco Molinari (66) and Doug Ghim (68) were two shots off the lead, and eight others were under at 8.
Tournament director Phil Mickelson missed the cut, but made 18 pars for the first time on Friday in his 2,201 rounds of the PGA Tour.
Since his drives look sharp and his putts regularly drop in the middle, I am starting a strong tournament again in which he has already finished 10th and 12th in his short tour career.
“I’m pretty happy with the way I’ve played all of my shots,” I said. “Speaking of putting, I started drawing a line on the ball when visualizing my putts and that seemed to work pretty well today.”
I also feel that he might have an advantage because he didn’t travel to South Korea during the vacation because of the mandatory coronavirus quarantine. Instead, he stayed in the house he had recently bought in Atlanta and practiced for the new season.
As usual at the Palm Springs tournament, which was hosted for a long time by Bob Hope, the leaderboard was stacked with low scores. Im, Taylor and Ancer were among 12 players who didn’t bogey on Friday.
After the first two rounds have been divided into two places, all players play the once dreaded stadium place in the last two rounds. Heavy cloud cover never turned into rain on Friday, but there is a possibility of afternoon showers on Saturday.
Hagy made 10 birdies on his opening round but had a difficult start on Friday on the Stadium Course with two early bogeys. He rallied with birdies on his 16th and 17th holes, but his faulty drive on his final hole held him off pace from a shot.
“I feel good here,” said Hagy. “I’m a California kid, I’ve been to Palm Springs a lot, so I know the classes well. … The first two rounds of this tournament show me that the things I’m working on, especially this off-season, are definitely getting better. “
Taylor, who also led the Sony Open after two rounds last week, shot a 66 on the Stadium Course with six birdies. He had three straight birdies on the back nine of his bogey-free round, including a 24-foot birdie putt on the 15th and an 18-foot birdie on the island green on the 17th.
Taylor appears to be getting into impressive shape as he prepares to defend his Pebble Beach title in three weeks.
“My game feels really good right now, so hopefully it always climbs to its peak,” he said. “There were a lot of intimidating tee-offs, iron shots in greens. I feel like I’ve missed in all the right places. I did very well on the par-5 and looked at some of them fairly easily. “
Mickelson finished his two rounds at 2, but doing 18 pars felt encouraging for the 50-year-old veteran when he returns to his hometown of San Diego next week.
“It’s surprising because I’m really trying to hit fairways and the middle of the greens and just do pars,” Mickelson said. “It’s really shocking that this is the first time. … there are a lot of good things to take – the way I drive the ball, my iron game. There are many positive aspects. If you look at the scorecard, it’s pathetic. I do not deny that. But I think it’s a little closer than it looks. “
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