Date: April 20, 2016
Author: Mark Hayes

Coach: Minjee’s best is still to come

Coach Ritchie Smith says Minjee Lee is only approaching the player she will become.

Lee stormed to No.12 in the world rankings this week after her Sunday triumph in the LPGA Tour’s Lotte Championship in Hawaii.

But Perth-based Smith said the 19-year-old was still bedding down a major swing change – and, more importantly, beginning to feel comfortable around the world’s best players, including her similarly-aged peer and world No.1 Lydia Ko.

Lee dominated early at Ko Olina, on Oahu, with rounds of 68-66 to hold the halfway lead before stumbling with a 74 in the third round as a host of players roared past her on the leaderboard.

But a breathtaking 64, a tournament low, during the heat of final-round battle was enough for a one-shot win, her second LPGA triumph early in her second year on tour.

“Comparisons have been made between her and Lydia Ko, but the experience level of Minjee is far behind Lydia,” Smith told SEN radio this week.

“They are very different people, too; Lydia is a very confident person and Minjee is a little flighty with the way she thinks about things, but she’s now getting a grasp of what she’s capable of.”

Smith said there were glimpses of the dominant player Lee could become.

“She’s working her way into that. The only knock on her is her ability to lead. We saw in Hawaii she was 10 under after two rounds and then fall back when the pressure was on.

“I think it will come, but we want to see her lead throughout an event and see how it goes.

“But she has an amazing ability to not worry about her score and that’s her greatest asset, maybe just the situation we’re working on.”

Part of that dedication, Smith revealed, was a swing reshaped over her Christmas “break”, with a lower ball flight – with less of her natural draw – designed primarily for the more challenging course set-ups seen in major championships.

“Minjee is very much focused on those and the Olympics and … we noticed on courses that were windy and firm (that her ball could run through the target zone) so we decided we would try to lower her ball flight significantly,” he said.

“For her it’s quite a big change and it really changes her whole thought process … and swing plane.

“It was a very big risk, because she’s a very capable player, top 15 in the world in her first year (on the LPGA Tour), but she’s limited and we didn’t want any limitations.

“To take that risk is a challenge and she had to be up for it and to her credit, she has been up for it since the moment we said it. Obviously she knew.

“I don’t think we have produced a golfer in Australia in the past 10 years who’s worked as hard and as holistically as she has, and she deserves everything she gets.”

Lee fired six birdies and an eagle to slice through field and win by a stroke during a dramatic final round.

The Golf Australia rookie pro, who won her first title at Kingsmill in Virginia last May, began the final round five strokes back and joked afterwards that her Smith told her to just “go out and shoot 64”.

At the turn, that didn’t look likely with the Royal Fremantle Golf Club member going well, but only two under for the round.

But she caught fire on the back nine, going birdie-par-eagle-birdie-birdie-par-birdie between the 11th and 17th holes to storm past In Gee Chun and Katie Burnett and then scramble a brave par up the last to post a -16 total.

The emerging Korean star and American both had long-range birdie putts to reach that mark on the last green, but each left it short and left to send Lee into raptures – and the traditional champion’s hula dance.

“It’s a huge confidence booster,” said Lee, who leapt to sixth on the LPGA Tour’s CME Race to the Globe rankings.

Sarah-Jane Smith shot a 70 to finish T39 at -3, Su Oh was T47 after a 73 left her even par, Sarah Kemp shot a 71 to finish T59 at +1 while Katherine Kirk charged through the field with a great closing 67 to finish +3 and T62.