DUPONT, Wash. – The first time Luciane Lee played a competitive round she shot 135. Lee, then a freshman at Torrance (Calif.) High, was frustrated, but not discouraged.
Her older brother and cousin playfully gawked at the results. Lucas Lee, seven years her senior, was already an All-American at UCLA and headed for a professional career. Angela Park was coming off a rookie-of-the-year season on the LPGA Tour, where she tied for fifth at the LPGA Championship and was the runner-up at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Resort & Lodge.
Even Luciane’s father, Dong Ho, thought she might be better served trying a different endeavor.
But Luciane saw golf as a way to avoid taking physical-education at school. Why endure two-mile runs or swim laps when she could enjoy a leisurely day on the links? Besides, playing on the junior-varsity golf team allowed Lee to have more free time during sixth period.
I thought [phys ed] was a waste of time, said Lee.
Although she suffered through golf’s trials and tribulations during the 2007-08 school year, Lee quickly developed a passion for the game and was determined to someday become as accomplished as her brother and cousin.
While the improvement didn’t happen overnight, Lee’s game eventually evolved. She broke 100 as a sophomore, routinely broke 80 by her junior and senior seasons, and was offered a scholarship from UC Irvine.
I had never picked up a club, said Lee, looking back on her nascent days as a golfer. I’m a very competitive person, so shooting 135 wasn’t really fun. My dad would tell me to stop, but I told him I wanted to keep playing. My goal was to get into a college with a scholarship.
She not only achieved that goal, but now Lee’s game is strong enough to compete on a national level, and last month the 20-year-old qualified for her second consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. Lee, who missed the cut at last year’s WAPL at the Jimmie Austin OU Golf Club in Norman, Okla., is one of 156 golfers competing here this week in the final WAPL at The Home Course, where she opened stroke-play qualifying on Monday with an even-par 72.
Even Lee can smile at her remarkable journey and only laugh at the days when she struggled to break 100. Now she has eyes on possibly competing in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for her native Brazil. What might have seemed like a pipedream seven years ago, is now a legitimate opportunity.
Lee was born in Sao Paulo to Korean parents who had moved to Brazil as young children. Dong Ho operated a clothing store, but when his oldest child, Lucas, showed promise as a golfer, he decided to move to Southern California because of the better competition. Dong Ho and Lucas were the first to make the move and the rest of the family came a few years later.
The transition to American life for 11-year-old Luciane paralleled her golf career: it started slow and then picked up. She had learned English in Brazil, but it took awhile for her to become comfortable in the classroom setting. Lucas, meanwhile, landed a scholarship to UCLA and now competes on the OneAsia Tour and PGA Tour Canada, where he had three top-10 finishes last year.
Park also emigrated to the U.S. from Brazil and she enjoyed a stellar amateur career, which included a semifinal showing at the 2005 U.S. Women’s Amateur, before turning pro in 2006. Two years later, she tied for third at the U.S. Women’s Open at Interlachen C.C. in Edina, Minn., but a serious wrist injury in 2009 forced Park off the LPGA Tour. She retired from competitive golf in 2010 and has played sparingly since.
To be honest, her swing looks the same, said Luciane, who competed with Park for Brazil at the South American Games in Chile in March. Right now she just has to work on her mental game.
Luciane, meanwhile, played three semesters for UC Irvine before leaving school in December. As a freshman, she was named All-Big West Conference and posted a pair of top-3 finishes. She qualified for the NCAA West Regionals as an individual, where she finished 22nd.
But the demands of being on the Brazilian National Team created issues for Lee. She wanted to play in South American tournaments, which meant time away from school, so she decided it was best for her to focus entirely on golf. In December, she won the Cordoba Amateur in Argentina, carding a career-best 67.
In August, she’ll enter LPGA Tour Qualifying School as an amateur. She also could be selected to play for Brazil in the Women’s World Amateur, scheduled for Sept. 3-6 in Japan.
I know my game is not at a professional level yet, but I am going to take the month of August to practice hard for Q-School, she said. Hopefully I’ll get on a tour, maybe the Symetra Tour. I want to get world-ranking points for 2016.
Golf is returning to the Olympic Games for the first time since 1904 and players will qualify based on their world ranking. Players within the top 15 as of July 11, 2016, will be eligible, with no more than four players from any one country able to participate. The balance of the field will be selected in order from 16th place onwards in the men’s and women’s official world golf rankings. Because Brazil is hosting the Olympics, the country gets one male and female entry – regardless of world ranking – into the golf competition.
Luciane and Lucas would dearly love to make it a family affair. Lucas represented Brazil at the 2011 World Cup in China, where the Luciane got a rare chance to hit balls on the practice range next to 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy.
But this week, Luciane is hoping to have a better week in Washington than Lucas did when he competed in the 2006 U.S. Amateur Public Links at Gold Mountain in nearby Bremerton. Lucas fell in the first round of match play to eventual runner-up and future PGA Tour winner Anthony Kim.
Neither Lucas, who attended the World Cup in Brazil before heading to Canada this week for his next tournament, nor Park, who is in California, will be able to support Luciane in person this week. But Park told her at the South American Games to just focus on her game and not let any outside forces affect her play.
Luciane is relying on her experience from last year’s WAPL.
Last year was my first USGA event and I was really nervous, she said. I realized the girls are just as nervous as I am. I want to make the cut and go to match play. I like match play. It’s cool to see the Brazilian flag [above the scoreboard and on the driving range] because I am representing my country.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer with the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.