Notebook: Minjee Lee's Big Break: A USGA Title


Minjee Lee (right) and her caddie, Kei Kita, hooked up after stroke-play qualifying when Kita's girl failed to make the cut. (Steve Gibbons/USGA)
By David Shefter, USGA
July 21, 2012

Daly City, Calif. – Call it a break from a break.

Minjee Lee has rarely taken much time off from her golf since becoming an elite player in Australia.

Maybe a few days here and there between events, but certainly not three months.

But in January, Lee fell out of a golf cart while trying to pick up a golf ball just prior to the New South Wales Open. Instead of possibly competing in the professional event, the 16-year-old from Perth, Australia, fractured her right ankle in two places.

There would be no NSW Open, no Australian Masters and no Australian Open. The 2012 Australian Amateur semifinalist would also be forced to miss a couple of big amateur competitions.

Instead of golf, there would be months of rehab.

But everything turned out OK. Lee returned to competition refreshed and in just her second major competition, she claimed the 64th U.S. Girls’ Junior at Lake Merced Golf Club with a 1-up win over Alison Lee (no relation), 17, of Valencia, Calif., in Saturday’s 36-hole final match.

“She was No. 3 in the world at start of the year and was certainly headed to better things before she broke her ankle,” said her coach Ritchie Smith, who has been with the Australian National Team for 15 years and worked with Lee since she was 12. “She has really worked diligently [to get back to form]. For her [the Girls’ Junior title] is a just reward, and she stuck to the plan and has come through.”

Lee said the time off gave allowed her to not only “refuel,” but also work on a few things in her game.

“I had the best break,” said Lee. “Then I just came out even stronger, and I could do things that I never could have done in my swing technically. I had a few projects in mind, like trying to fix my swing. I'm getting better.”

Lee certainly showed it in the final, rallying from a 3-down deficit with six to play to pull out the win. It took a couple of mistakes by Alison Lee, but Minjee never gave up, something her coach said is a key component to her success.

“The thing with Minjee is it doesn’t look like she is trying that hard, but internally she is really churning things out,” said Smith. “I thought she would come back and she did. She got a few chances there.

“Her consistency is just so strong. If the other person makes a mistake, she will prey on that mistake. She’ll keep the same form going regardless of the situation. We’re really proud of her.”

Big News Down Under 

Residents of Perth were likely sipping morning coffee or headed to church when Lee secured her Girls’ Junior victory on Saturday afternoon (8 a.m. Sunday in Perth). Lee wasn’t sure how the local papers would play up the triumph as many in Australia’s western-most city aren’t aware of the significance of winning an amateur national championship in the U.S. Lee, who is ranked eighth in the Women’s World Amateur Ranking, said she does make headlines back home at other big competitions. After all, she won four major golf events last year.

“I don't know,” she said of how much press her Girls’ Junior triumph will receive. “I think it will be a story or two.”

Coming To America 

This was Minjee Lee’s second trip to the U.S. to play competitive golf. She was here in 2011 to participate in the Thunderbird International Junior in Arizona, an American Junior Golf Association event. Her seven-week visit this year started a week ago at the Junior Worlds in San Diego, where she tied for seventh. Next week, she’ll be in suburban Houston for an eight-day camp with the Australian National Team before heading to Cleveland for the U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in early August.

But Lee wouldn’t have competed in this year’s Girls’ Junior had it not been for two key things: She was exempt from qualifying based on her high world ranking and Golf Australia’s Brad James, the former head coach at the University of Minnesota, recommended filing an entry. James, having spent time in the U.S., told Lee that USGA events are world-class and well-run.

So she figured this was an ideal way to test her skills against tough competition.

“I was going to play the Trans National or some other amateur, because that's what we first scheduled out,” said Lee. “This was like a last-minute tournament, so I was like, why not. Brad James said to play a USGA tournament if you get a chance. If you can get in, then definitely play because they're really professional and they're really good.”

Lee will try to become the first player to win the Girls’ Junior and Women’s Amateur in the same year at The Country Club in Cleveland. She will be joined in the field by several other highly ranked Australians, including Breanna Elliott, Su-Hyun Oh (who played at the Girls’ Junior this week) and Whitney Hillier.

Lucky Break 

Kei Kita wasn’t planning on being a caddie this week. The Lake Merced Junior Merit member, who just graduated from the University of California-Santa Barbara, has been working at a local golf shop in Mountain View this summer. But last week he got a call from the Lake Merced pro shop that a caddie was needed. The 21-year-old who has been a Junior Merit member for the last six years, gladly accepted, but his player, Jordan Webb, missed the match-play cut.

However, one of Webb’s fellow competitors, Minjee Lee, was into the 64-player match-play draw. Lee’s mother, Clara, asked if Kita if he wanted to keep going. He accepted the bag and wound up helping Lee win the championship.

“It was great,” said Kita, who normally only caddies for friends. “She likes to do things her own way so I kind of let her be.”

History Revisited 

It was ironic that the final match turned at the 16th hole (actually 34th of the match). It was this same short par 4 that played a role in a couple of key matches at the 1990 U.S. Junior Amateur contested at Lake Merced. It was on that hole that Tiger Woods, then just 14, lost his semifinal match to Dennis Hillman. In the final later that day against Mathew Todd, the hole victimized Hillman, who three-putted when he had a chance to win the match. Todd went on to birdie the final two holes for a 1-up win.

Fast forward to 2012.

Alison Lee had an 8-foot putt to go 1 up on Minjee Lee. She not only missed the putt, but also missed the 4-foot comebacker for par to go 1 down. The two players halved the final two holes.

“I guess I wanted it too much and I just hit it way too hard,” said Alison Lee. “And the putt coming back … I just had this little thought in my head, what if I miss it? I actually thought that before I hit the putt, and I actually did miss it.”

So Much For Patriotism  

With Australian Adam Scott on the verge of winning the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Minjee Lee was asked if she was rooting for her countryman.

The answer might surprise a few.

“Tiger Woods,” said Lee, who also idolizes 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy from Northern Ireland. “Yeah, Tiger Woods has always been [my idol], regardless whatever he does in his personal life.”

So what about the affable Scott, who owns a four-shot lead heading into Sunday’s final round?

“Oh, yeah, he's good looking,” said Minjee Lee. “Yes, I think his swing is one of the best. I really do.

“He's really a really, really big role model in golf, and junior golf. Just golf in general in Australia. I think it would be a pretty big impact.”

Odd and Ends 

Lake Merced Junior Merit member Samantha Gong, 13, of San Francisco served as the standard bearer for the afternoon 18 of the final … Members at Lake Merced made Minjee Lee an honoray life member of the club at a post-championship party…Minjee Lee said she is missing about a month of school being here in the U.S. “I have my books, but I haven't studied much,” she said. “They always give me tests and assignments and stuff. [I will have] my assessments when I get back.”… Flags flew at half-mast on Saturday after the tragic shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater on Thursday night … Among the approximately 400 gallery members were several U.S. Girls’ Junior participants, including Megan Khang, Australia’s Su-Hyun Oh, Lydia Ko, Hannah O’Sullivan and Zora Gittens … Also in attendance were Lake Merced Junior Merit members Alexandra Wong and Andrea Wong Alison Lee had to head back to Los Angeles Saturday night to catch a flight to Orlando, Fla., for the Wyndham Cup. Lee had originally been scheduled to fly out of San Francisco on Saturday, but had to change her flights. Lee will also compete in the PGA Junior Championship at Sycamore Hills G.C. in Fort Wayne, Ind., next year’s Girls’ Junior site, before heading to the U.S. Women’s Amateur. “Hopefully I can fix some things in my putting,” she said.

David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at dshefter@usga.org. 

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