Four years ago, Minjee Lee announced herself as a 17-year-old amateur in winning the Oates Vic Open. In 2018, she came in as a world-ranked player, the clear favourite, and performed precisely like that.
Lee began the final round with a one-shot lead and had stretched it to a five-shot win by the time she rolled in a birdie putt from just beyond a metre at the par-five 18th hole for a six-under par 67.
The 21-year-old from Perth gave her opposition no chance with a round that included five birdies, an eagle and just the one blemish, at the par-four eighth hole where she misjudged her approach and could not get up and down from behind the green.
Lee shot 13-under overall to win by five from 19-year-old Queenslander Karis Davidson, playing her first professional tournament, at eight-under. Perth’s Hannah Green and England’s Georgia Hall tied third at seven-under.
But Lee was unstoppable, never once bothered by the fact she had a target on her back as the world No. 20, highest-ranked in the field, and a past winner.
“I haven’t been in this situation too many times,’’ she said later. “I just went out and played my own game.
“I was a little bit nervous out there probably coming down the stretch, but I knew I had somewhat of a lead so I could just play. But most of the pressure I put on myself, so it was nice to come out with the win.’’
The women’s tournament was a massive tick for the elite amateur programs of this country with all three players in the final group – Lee, Karis Davidson and Hannah Green – being Karrie Webb Scholarship holders, and none of them older than 21. Green has graduated to the LPGA Tour for 2018 while Davidson has her card to play on the Japanese tour.
Davidson and Green, close friends from their amateur days, had a titanic battle for second place that went all the way to the 71st hole, when Green made bogey from a swale beside the green and Davidson made a solid par.
As much as it was a triumph for Lee as the winner, it was an astonishing professional tournament debut for the 19-year-old Gold Coast player Davidson, who has only just turned pro after a fine amateur career during which she won a string of tournaments including the Riversdale Cup.
Davidson made par at the 18th to card a two-under par 71 and seal second place, worth $58,000 in prizemoney. Aside from the $300 she won in a pro-am last week, it is her first cheque, a notion she found “a bit crazy.’’
But it was plainly Lee’s day, the three-time LPGA Tour winner continuing the form that she had displayed all week, particularly in her bogey-free opening two rounds. Today she put the hammer down the par-five fifth hole with an awesome three wood second shot from just outside 200 metres that landed on the front fringe of the green and trickled up to just inside two metres from the flag.
It was the thunderclap that really ended the tournament. The eagle putt trickled over the edge of the cup and the margin was four, and while Davidson in particular made a couple of charges, neither she nor Green could get back within three shots for the rest of the day.
“I separated myself a little bit there but a lot of the holes are birdie chances,’’ she said. “From that moment I thought they could catch up to me, so I kept playing.’’
Chances to close the gap came and went. At the short par-five 14th, for instance, both Green and Davidson hit the green in two while Lee was off the front fringe. But each of the challenge three-putted from long range while Lee two-putted for birdie to increase the buffer. Another birdie at the short par-four 15th drew a fist pump from her, as time ran out for the others.
Sweden’s Caroline Hedwall closed with a seven-under par 66 as did Prima of Thammaraks Thailand in conditions that were much easier than previous afternoons.
As for Lee, she is in the midst of a five-tournament stretch that goes through Canberra next week, to Adelaide for the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and then on to Asia. She believes the victory today will spur her.
“I decided to play Vic Open and Canberra next week prior to the Aussie Open because I wanted to feel readier than any other year,’’ she said. “I think it’s a great confidence-booster to have had a win here so hopefully I can carry it on to the next two weeks, and my season.’’