Perth sensation Min Woo Lee is on the cusp of a groundbreaking victory at the ISPS Handa Vic Open, a win that would reprise the two Vic Open wins of his elder sister, Minjee, who won here in 2014 and 2018.
Lee, 21, played a remarkable third round in winds that blew to 60km/h at 13th Beach today, picking his way around the course like a veteran and carding a four-under par 68 that only one player in the field could beat (the 67 by Queenslander Anthony Quayle).
It finished with a flourish that emphasises the talent that he has been showing since he emerged from Royal Fremantle and the Golf Western Australia junior programs: he smashed a two iron tee shot downwind 343 metres at the par-five 18th, leaving him just a nine iron shot into the green.
He hit the short iron to three metres from the flag, a thunderclap of a golf shot given that he was already a shot ahead. Then he backed away four times from his putt as the strong winds made the ball oscillate, stepped up finally and drained it for eagle, fist pumping for the people around the amphitheatre of the 18th green.
Hopefully, they had an understanding of what they were witnessing. Lee is the most exciting young Australian talent in golf for many years, a US junior champion as an amateur and already making strides in his early years as a pro, albeit without any full status on a big tour.
Lee is at 15-under par through three rounds and two shots ahead of veteran Marcus Fraser from Victoria, who had a great day himself, shooting 69, and New South Welshman Travis Smyth, who had an even-par 72. Four players – overnight leader Robin Sciot-Siegrist of France (76 today), Quayle, Canberra’s Matt Millar and Victorian Ash Hall, are at 10-under with a sliver of a chance.
But they would need Lee, who has never won a tournament as a professional, to come back to them and the winds are tipped to be strong on the Bellarine Peninsula again.
Today was brutal, no doubt, with Fraser, an 18-year professional, saying it was “borderline unplayable”. The 41-year-old Fraser, who has come home after a decade in Europe to spend more time with his family, turned back the clock. But that is not to say that it was easy. Smyth said the wind was worth “at least” three clubs; maybe four.
“Yeah, I always describe it, my old man plays off about 14,’’ said Fraser. “He's a good golfer, but I think he would have struggled to beat 110 out there today. I think that's probably as strong a wind as I think I've played in anywhere. It's lucky the greens are a little bit slower because I think the ball would be moving around if it wasn't.”
Lee said if the wind blew so hard back at home in Perth, he “wouldn’t even bother playing”. But he made four birdies to go with his eagle at the last, and just two bogeys. “Yeah, very proud,” he said. “I don't know if I played the best, but I think it was pretty tough to beat. So one of them tomorrow again I think should do the job. But it's another day, it's another 24 hours, so I'm just looking for the challenge.”
A European Tour card is on the line tomorrow, which is hugely significant for Lee. In 2019, he was led to believe that he had tallied enough points in his starts on invitations to secure his card, and he said so publicly. But when the tour’s Race To Dubai points were announced at the end of the season, he was two positions outside the number.
It was a big error but he has not let it destroy him. “I feel like I'm good enough to keep my card regardless of winning or not,” he said. “You know, I'm looking forward to if I do win, but I'm just going to go out there and keep playing the way I am. I'm striking it well and putting well, so I think it's a good combo in this wind, just got to take advantage of it.”
A bunch of players had a look at the lead before Lee’s final flurry. They included Smyth, who ended up posting a 72. “Yeah, there's no let up, there's no easy holes,” said the 24-year-old from Shellharbour outside Wollongong. “Like, it's that windy that the downwind holes are still hard because you still don't have any control of it. Yeah, mentally, I had a bit of a roller coaster today.”
Queensland amateur Jed Morgan also shared the lead early, playing in the final group. But he fell away with two bad bunker shots at the fourth and fifth holes, and ended up carding a 74 to sit in a tie for eighth at nine-under par.
He had no reason to be ashamed. The average score for men was 73.9; for women, it was 75.5.
“I played good today,” he said. “It was just a really tough day. Par would’ve been three or four over (par). It was awesome playing in the last group. I haven’t played in the last group in a professional tournament, let alone in a European Tour co-sanctioned event. That was an experience in itself. It was awesome.”
Three Australians — Lee, Fraser and Smyth — will play in the last group tomorrow at 12.18 pm. The winds are coming again. It’s all before us.