While many competitors stood around the scoreboard late Tuesday afternoon at Lake Merced Golf Club anxious to see if they were in or out of the match-play draw at the 64th U.S. Girls’ Junior, Minjee Lee was playfully chatting up World No. 1 Lydia Ko on the practice green.
The two young golfers – Ko is 15 and Lee 16 – were relaxed, knowing that they had more golf left this week.
Ko, a New Zealander, came into this championship with plenty of hype, having just earned low-amateur honors at the U.S. Women’s Open. She has been the world’s top-ranked player for more than a year and received the 2011 Mark H. McCormack Medal for holding the top spot at year’s end.
Lee, on the other hand, isn’t quite as known to the American public. But take a glance at the Women’s World Amateur Golf Ranking and she sits in the top 10. Prior to the U.S. Girls’ Junior, she was No. 4, but dropped four spots in the latest rankings that were released on Sunday.
Her credentials are impressive. Last year alone, she won four tournaments: the Western Australian State Amateur, Singapore Ladies Amateur, Handa Junior Masters and Nedlands Masters. This past January, the Perth resident advanced to the semifinals of the Australian Amateur at Woodlands Golf Club before dropping a 6-and-4 decision to Ko, the eventual champion.
Lee also traveled to Europe last summer to compete in several prestigious events, including the Astor Trophy and Ladies British Open Amateur at Royal Portrush, where she lost in the first round.
Nevertheless, few people outside Australasia know Lee. This is only the second time she has come to the U.S. to play golf, and the Girls’ Junior is her inauguration into USGA championships. But she wouldn’t be at Lake Merced this week if it weren’t for the Women’s World Amateur Ranking.
This year, the USGA added that list to its exemption categories for all of its women’s championships. Players inside the top 75 on the points list didn’t have to go through qualifying.
That was enough to convince Lee and her mother, who teaches golf to young kids in Perth, to make the 19-hour journey to California. She stopped off first in San Diego for last week’s Junior Worlds, where she tied for seventh at Torrey Pines’ North Course, before coming up the coast to the Bay Area.
"I thought why not?" said Lee of her reason to play the Girls’ Junior. "This is amazing."
Lee, who shot 6-over 150 (79-71) in stroke-play qualifying, easily advanced to the round of 32 with a 7-and-6 victory on Wednesday over Taylor Totland, of Tinton Falls, N.J. She’ll play Ju Hee Bae, of Chantilly, Va., on Thursday morning for a spot in the third round.
"I love the competition because there’s not many tournaments in Australia, so when I come here there are so many tournaments [to choose]. The competition is great. I get to see where I am at."
Lee has quickly risen within the ranks of Australian women’s amateur golf. Two years ago, she wasn’t even on the radar screen for the National Team. Now she’s the highest ranked Australian amateur and one of six from her country ranked among the top 50.
Following the Girls’ Junior, she’ll fly to Houston for an eight-day National Team camp at The Woodlands before moving on to Cleveland, Ohio, for the U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club. She’ll then fly home and begin finishing her final year of high school. She expects to graduate from Corpus Christi College sometime in the fall of 2013.
Lee remains unsure if she’ll pursue a college education in the U.S. If she wanted to be seen this week, she came to the right place as more than 85 Division I schools have been on the grounds scouting talent. Some of her Australian friends such as Claudia Lim (Ohio State), Jade Panos (Oklahoma State) and Justine Lee (Arizona State) attend Division I schools.
"I wouldn’t go to college [in America] until 2014," said Lee. "It’s definitely an option. I am still looking around."
Meanwhile, Lee is having fun playing and traveling this summer. She will miss about a month of school during her seven weeks in the U.S. While in Southern California for Junior Worlds, she and her mother visited City Walk at Universal Studios, saw the famous HOLLYWOOD sign and shopped. They are planning to visit Fisherman’s Wharf and possibly Alcatraz after the Girls’ Junior concludes.
Then she’ll train with Aussie team members such as Breanna Elliott at a camp in Houston. Lee missed the opportunity last year and is looking forward to seeing fellow team members as well as professionals who play here on U.S. tours.
Of course, getting to the U.S. isn’t cheap and Lee is quick to point out this nearly two-month odyssey didn’t come about without some financial assistance from Golf Australia, Golf Western Australia and her local club (Royal Fremantle Golf Club).
"My mum is over here as well and it’s very expensive," she said.
But Lee acknowledged the trip is vital to her golf development. Good showings this summer could land her a coveted spot on Australia’s squad for the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship that will take place in September in Turkey.
After struggling the first day in the windy and cold conditions, Lee fired a 1-under 71 in Tuesday’s final stroke-play qualifying round. In Wednesday’s first round, she played the equivalent of 2-under-par golf (with concessions) against Totland.
And if she continues to win, there could be a possible final showdown with Ko, as the two are on opposite sides of the bracket.
Lee, however, isn’t looking that far ahead.
"I don’t really feel pressure," she said. "I just do my own thing and play my own game."
David Shefter is a USGA senior staff writer. Email him at email@example.com.