Washington, Sept 6, 2020 (AFP) -South Korea’s Im Sung-jae birdied three of the last four holes but top-ranked Dustin Johnson clung to a one-stroke lead after Saturday’s second round of the US PGA Tour Championship.
Im fired a six-under-par 64 to finish on 12-under but struggling Johnson, last in the field in driving accuracy after finding only 2-of-14 fairways, closed with a four-foot birdie putt to lead on 13-under after 36 holes at East Lake in Atlanta.
“Tough one. It was up and down. Just didn’t drive it straight enough,” said Johnson. “Everything else feels good. I managed my game pretty well.
“I couldn’t really attack the golf course being in the rough and in the bunkers. I think I was everywhere today.”
Im, 22, would be the second-youngest FedEx Cup winner, two months older than Jordan Spieth when the American captured the 2015 crown.
“I was happy with my shots,” Im said. “I hit a lot of fairways, so it made my approach shots a lot easier. That gave me a lot of good looks at birdie, which helped me go low.”
Johnson scrambled to a 70 to hold off charging Im with American Xander Schauffele third on 11-under after a 65 and third-ranked American Justin Thomas fourth on 10-under.
“The rough is thick and nastier than I’ve ever seen it,” Schauffele said.
Spain’s Jon Rahm, PGA Championship winner Collin Morikawa and England’s Tyrrell Hatton shared fifth on 9-under in the season-ending showdown for a $15 million playoff prize.
Johnson matched his fewest fairways hit in a PGA round, managing only two also at the 2009 and 2011 Phoenix Open.
“I need to drive it better over the weekend. Frustrated with my tee balls,” Johnson said. “If I want to win this golf tournament, I’ve got to hit more fairways.”
Johnson began the week on 10-under by virtue of his season points lead with Rahm next on 8-under, third-ranked American Justin Thomas on 7-under and other rivals up to 10 strokes adrift in the staggered start system.
World number 27 Im, last season’s US PGA Rookie of the Year, began the event six strokes behind Johnson but charged with his third round of 65 of lower since the June PGA restart after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I honestly wasn’t feeling very confident the last few weeks,” Im said. “I feel like it’s all coming back to me now.”
Johnson, who began day two level with Rahm for the lead at 13-under, rolled in a 37-foot birdie putt at the third hole to seize the lead at 14-under.
At four, his tee shot went deep into the left rough and he only salvaged par thanks to a 31-foot putt.
Johnson sank a six-foot birdie putt at the par-5 sixth to start a roller coaster finish to the front nine.
He missed the seventh fairway on the way to bogey, blasted out of a fairway bunker to 43 feet and holed the birdie effort at eight only to find a bunker and a bogey at the par-3 ninth.
Johnson went from pine straw left to dense greenside rough to bogey 12, then rimmed out a horseshoe 11-foot birdie putt at 14. He made bogey at 15 and only after Im matched him did Johnson birdie the last to lead alone.
After a run of three birdies and a bogey in four holes on the front side, Im opened the back nine with a five-foot birdie putt at the 10th.
Im dropped his approach inside eight feet to birdie the par-3 15th, his next one inside three feet to birdie 16 and sank a three-footer for birdie at 18 to briefly share the lead.
Im said a win would see him buy a US home and save money for retirement.
“I’m aware of the $15 million on the line, but I try not to think about it when I play,” Im said. “I know if I play my best the next two days, the opportunity will come. It all seems like a dream.”
Defending playoff champion McIlroy, who became a father Monday with the birth of daughter Poppy, fired a 71. It included a chunked shot from the rough into a lake at 18.
13-under: Dustin Johnson 67-70
12-under: Im Sung-jae (KOR) 68-64
11-under: Xander Schauffele 67-65
10-under: Justin Thomas 66-71
9-under: Collin Morikawa 71-65, Tyrrell Hatton (ENG) 67-66, Jon Rahm (ESP) 65-74
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