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Friday's golf: Sungjae Im shoots 65, takes lead at The American Express

Greg Beacham
Associated Press

La Quinta, Calif. — Although Sungjae Im hasn’t been on the PGA Tour for very long, the 22-year-old South Korean already feels awfully comfortable on the generous desert courses at The American Express.

So do plenty of other pros, and that’s why the leaderboard is so crowded heading to the weekend.

Im shot a 7-under 65 on Friday at The American Express to take a one-stroke lead over first-round leader Brandon Hagy and four others.

Sungjae Im hits from the sixth tee during the second round Friday of The American Express golf tournament on the Pete Dye Stadium Course at PGA West in La Quinta, Calif.

Im, the tour’s rookie of the year in 2019, had seven birdies in a bogey-free round on the Stadium Course at PGA West, highlighted by three in four holes around the turn. After struggling with his putter in recent weeks, he banged in a 22-footer and an 18-footer for consecutive birdies late in his round.

“Visually from the tee box, it’s a course that I really like and enjoy to play, so I felt really comfortable throughout the round,” Im said. “The two courses that we’re playing this week, I like those courses, and that’s what led me to a good score.”

Hagy was in position to join Im at 11 under, but he bogeyed his final hole with a tee shot into the fairway bunker 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) also were 10 under. Emiliano Grillo (66), Francesco Molinari (66) and Doug Ghim (68) were two shots off the lead, and eight more were at 8 under.

Tournament host Phil Mickelson missed the cut, but made 18 pars Friday for the first time in his 2,201 rounds of PGA Tour play.

With his drives looking sharp and his mid-range putts dropping regularly, Im is off to another strong start at a tournament in which he has already finished 10th and 12th in his short Tour career.

“I’m pretty satisfied with how I played all of my shots,” Im said. “Speaking of putting, I started drawing a line on the ball as I visualize my putts, and that seemed to work pretty well today.”

Im also feels he might have an edge because didn’t travel home to South Korea during the holiday break due to the mandatory coronavirus quarantine required. Instead, he stayed in the house he recently purchased in Atlanta and practiced for the new season.

The leaderboard was stacked with low scores as usual at the Palm Springs-area tournament long hosted by Bob Hope. Im, Taylor and Ancer were among 12 players who didn’t make a bogey Friday.

After splitting the first two rounds over two courses, the players will all play the once-feared Stadium Course for the final two rounds. Heavy cloud cover never developed into rain Friday, but there’s a possibility of afternoon showers Saturday.

Hagy made 10 birdies in his opening round, but got off to a rough start Friday on the Stadium Course with two early bogeys. He rallied with birdies on his 16th and 17th holes, but his errant drive on his final hole kept him one shot off the pace.

“I feel comfortable here,” Hagy said. “I’m a California kid, been to Palm Springs a ton of times, so I know the courses well. … The first two rounds of this tournament are showing me that the stuff I’m working on, especially this offseason, is definitely getting better.”

Taylor, who also led the Sony Open after two rounds last week, shot a 66 with six birdies on the Stadium Course. 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-footer on the island green at the 17th.

Taylor appears to be rounding into impressive form as he prepares to defend his Pebble Beach title in three weeks.

“My game feels really good right now, so hopefully it keeps peaking,” he said. “It was a lot of intimidating tee shots, iron shots into greens. I feel like I missed in the right places. I drove it really nice on the par-5s and gave myself pretty easy looks on a few of them.”

Mickelson finished his two rounds at 2 over, but making 18 pars felt encouraging to the 50-year-old veteran as he heads back to his native San Diego area next week.

“It’s surprising, because I really try to hit fairways and center of the greens and just make easy pars,” Mickelson said. “For that to be the first time, it’s really shocking. … There’s a lot of good things to take from it – the way I’m driving the ball, my iron play. There’s a lot of positives. If you look at the scorecard, it’s pathetic. I’m not denying that. But I think that it’s a little bit closer than it looks.”

Tour Champions

Jerry Kelly and Darren Clarke shared the second-round lead in the Mitsubishi Electric Championship after first-round leader Retief Goosen stumbled late at Hualalai.

Kelly birdied the 18th for a 5-under 67 to match Clarke at 13-under 131 with a round left in the first PGA Tour Champions event of the year.

“You strive to be in the last group,” Kelly said. “That’s what we’re out here for.”

Clarke had a 68, rebounding from a bogey on the 11th with four straight birdies.

“I just didn’t really have it today, to be honest with you,” said Clarke, the former British Open winner from Northern Ireland. “Goose played really, really nicely and he just struggled on the greens a bit. He just had a tough day on the greens. He was playing nicely. So I was just trying to hang on a little bit, and then hit a few better shots on the back nine obviously. Holed a couple putts as well.”

Goosen followed his opening 63 with a 71. He bogeyed the final two holes.

“Just couldn’t make a thing,” said Goosen, the two-time U.S. Open champion from South Africa. “Lost sort of my speed on the greens quite badly today, and if you have the wrong speed you can’t make anything.”

Fred Couples had a 63, the best round of the day, to join Kevin Sutherland (68) at 10 under. The 61-year-old former Masters champion eagled the par-5 14th and birdied Nos. 16 and 18.”

“Much needed to go fairly low and then it just kept getting better and better,” Couples said. “I hit a wicked 3-wood on 14 and curved it up on the green. It rolled about 30 feet and made it for eagle. It was a really good round.”

Charles Schwab Cup leader Bernhard Langer Bernhard Langer was 9 under after a 67. The 63-year-old German star is a three-time winner of the tournament.

Jim Furyk had his second 68 to get to 8 under. Ernie Els was 6 under after a 69

The tournament is the first of the year, but the season is a continuation from last year because of the COVID-19 pandemic that shut down the tour for four months. It is being played for the 25th straight season at Hualalai Golf Course, the longest run venue in PGA Tour Champions history.

LPGA

Danielle Kang continued to sail along at the LPGA Tour’s season-opening Diamond Resorts Tournament of Champions, shooting a 6-under 65 to stretch her lead to two shots.

A five-time LPGA Tour winner ranked fifth in the world, Kang had a 13-under 129 total at Four Seasons Golf and Sports Club Orlando. She has yet to make a bogey.

Nelly Korda, at No. 4 the top-ranked player in the 25-woman, winners-only field, was second after a 66.

In Gee Chun and defending champion Gaby Lopez were four strokes back at 9 under. Chun, a two-time major champion, matched Kang for the best score of the day with a 65. The South Korean player had a triple-bogey 7 on the sixth hole Thursday in an opening 68.

Lopez shot 68. The Mexican player won last year in a seven-hole playoff.

Kang missed only three greens in regulation, and her short game and putting continue to be sharp. Her round was very tidy, and she stretched her lead with three birdies on the back nine, converting on two par 5s (13 and 17) and the short par-4 16th.

Korda’s ball-striking has been very good through two days, leading her to 13 birdies and an eagle. Starting her round one shot behind Kang, Korda hit 12 of 13 fairways and 17 greens. She also got an added bonus: she played her round alongside Sorenstam.

“It was very cool, honestly,” Korda said. “She still has it.”

Korda returned to coach David Whelan in December, worked on quieting her hips in her swing, and has been happy with what she has seen in her game. Outside of one three-putt bogey on Friday, her round was pretty solid. Older sister Jessica Korda (69) is in the mix, too, five shots out of the lead, and Nelly was eager to see what the weekend will bring.

Tennis player Mardy Fish, a two-time champion of the tournament’s celebrity division, leads the celebrity side through two rounds. Using a Modified Stableford format, he has 78 points through 36 holes, five points better than New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks and former NFL kicker Josh Scobee.