Minjee Lee walks quickly, plays quickly, has risen in the golf world quickly. She’s in one hell of a hurry, literally.
This week sees the season’s second major, the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Westchester Country Club outside New York City, and suddenly she is a contender.
This week the teenager from Perth rose to No. 17 in the world on the back of her tie for fourth in Canada at her first start since she won the Kingsmill Championship in Virginia – her maiden win on the LPGA Tour.
That puts her one spot back from the immortal Karrie Webb as top Australian on the rankings, a feeling she described this week as “pretty cool’’. Webb, of course, has been a great supporter in her early days on tour, and messaged her after her win in the Kingsmill, but the 40-year-old may soon lose the mantle she has held for more than a decade.
As for the two-time Australian amateur champion and rookie professional Lee, she is playing with the legends and immediately looks comfortable.
“A pleasant surprise,’’ is how she describes her win in the Kingsmill earlier this month, acknowledging that it came after some disappointing results. “I didn’t really expect it. I was just happy to play a good four rounds. I just did everything that was in my control. I did what I could have done.’’
Of course, it did not come easily. Not the least of her issues was the fact that on the Sunday, when she hit the lead, a rain delay pushed the event so far back that it could not be completed. In short, Lee had to sleep on a three-shot lead with three holes to complete, with her first win as a professional on the line.
It was a recipe for a meltdown and when she came back on the Monday morning and immediately three-putted the 16th green from the fringe, disaster loomed for one so young, a few days shy of her 19th birthday. But Lee is nothing if not calm; nerveless, she hit the 17th and 18th greens in regulation and clinched the win by two shots.
Today, she told golf.org.au she simply did not have time to panic, and in fact, she had slept soundly. “We had to be back on the course at about 7.30am, so it was a quick turnover,’’ she said. “I didn’t have time to do anything. I only had time to eat and sleep. It was no problem. I don’t think about that kind of stuff anyway. I didn’t think too deeply into anything. Everything was really quick.’’
It came immediately after a couple of missed cuts, and shocked her coach, Ritchie Smith. “She’d been out of sorts before that,’’ said Smith, who will be with her in New York this week. “But she’d had a really good four or five days’ training before that, and I sort of knew she was going to build. She’s starting to get organised off the golf course. She’s running a better business, and that’s taken the pressure off her golf.’’
Part of that business was the hiring of a new caddie, American Jeremy Young, a longtime LPGA bagman who has previously carried the bag for Angela Stanford. Young’s first week coincided with Lee’s maiden victory after the Australian tried a few caddies over recent times.
Lee’s win was the third by a rookie on the LPGA Tour this year, after the Koreans Sei Young Kim and Hyo Joo Kim. In her rookie season the Australian has already won $US377,500 and the season is not even halfway done. All the predictions from back home – where she has been called Australia’s best female golfing prospect since Webb – are coming to fruition.
Lee is travelling with her mother, Clara, a single-figure player herself. Father Soonam, also a single-figure golfer, is back at home in Perth with Minjee’s younger brother Minwoo, who has attracted strong reviews for his golf as part of Golf Western Australia’s elite junior programs.
Lee has played 15 events already and has nothing bad to say about life on the road.
“It’s been fun, actually. I’ve been going to different places every week, meeting new people, having all these experiences. In the States it’s a different culture wherever you go. Like New York is different to Dallas and Dallas is different to San Francisco. Everywhere I go I’m having new experiences, going to Canada and stuff, it’s pretty cool. That was really nice; it kind of reminded me of Australia.
“Overall it’s been a pretty nice start, although if you miss a cut or something like that you can kind of get down. But even then it’s just one week of 33 tournaments. You can’t think too deeply into that. You just move on to the next event. It goes really quickly when you’re having a good time. I’ve got some friends out here and it’s been really great.’’
There’s the money, of course, although she keeps it in perspective. “It’s pretty much in your control. If you play good you get more pocket money and if you play bad, you get less pocket money. It’s all about how you play, but I guess it gives you a bit more incentive and motivation to play well.
“Actually I don’t think it increases the pressure. You’re not like ‘this putt is worth X amount of money’. You don’t think like that on a golf course. You just go out to play it. I always say ‘money is important but it’s not important when you’re playing’. You should be focussing on each shot, not on what it’s going to cost if you miss it or make a mistake. It’s not like that.
She misses her friends back in Perth, but knows that this is the business. “I miss my school friends but I’m sure they’re busy going to uni and having a good time as well.’’
Her own studies are on hold, for now at least. “For the time being I’m just playing golf, but I will see next year. Maybe when everything’s more settled down I’ll see what I want to do with that part of my life.’’
A few weeks ago in a lull of the tournament roundabout, Lee tripped up to Westchester Country Club for a look at the venue for this week’s major. It left her feeling comfortable. “She liked the course,’’ said Smith. “I think she’s going to be pretty much cherry ripe.’’
Lee herself is not about to let expectations roar ahead too quickly. “I’m not going to have too many expectations. I just want to not think too much. I just want to come to Sunday, the last nine holes, and I want to be in contention. I’m going to do everything I can in my control and do the best prep I can in order to play my best.’’