U.S. WOMEN'S OPEN
Alison Lee's Excellent Adventure
May 21, 2015
By David Shefter, USGA
A day after the most chaotic 48 hours of her burgeoning professional golf career, an exhausted yet relieved Alison Lee was in the kitchen of her family’s Valencia, Calif., residence doing her version of decompression and celebration.
She pulled out some pots and pans and started cooking.
“Salmon, broccoli and other veggies, and garlic rice,” said the 20-year-old of what she served her family for dinner. “That’s my escape.”
A trip to the local spa with her mother was scheduled for the following day.
Sounds like the ideal stress-reliever.
The LPGA Tour rookie needed some R & R on the heels of what can only be described as Alison’s Adventure in Golfland. Minus, of course, the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat and Queen of Hearts.
In a two-day whirlwind of time zones, text messages, phone calls, flight delays and tenuous moments, Lee’s emotions swung from exasperation to heartbreak to anxiety and, ultimately, exultation.
One minute, the LPGA Tour rookie was in the hunt for her first professional victory and a guaranteed spot in the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open, the next she was wondering if she would even have a chance to qualify for the biggest championship in women’s professional golf.
In between, flights were changed and sectional qualifying sites adjusted.
The journey encountered turbulence, but concluded with a smooth landing.
Lee would punch her ticket to Lancaster Country Club for the 2015 U.S. Women’s Open by sharing medalist honors with amateur Lilia Khatu Vu in sectional qualifying on May 19 at Goose Creek Golf Club in Mira Loma, Calif. Lee and Khatu Vu garnered the two available spots by shooting 2-over-par 144. Lee had long ago circled this championship on her competitive calendar because it is being contested on Lancaster’s classic William Flynn design, where she claimed the American Junior Golf Association’s Rolex Tournament of Champions title two years ago.
“I had been there before and I know the golf course,” said Lee. “I really like the area. I had a host family that I still keep in contact with.”
But as darkness fell on May 17, Lee wondered if she would get that opportunity. The day began with Lee one shot behind 54-hole leader Perrine Delacour at the Kingsmill Championship in Williamsburg, Va. Because the live broadcast window was 5-7 p.m. EDT, the final pairing of Lee and Delacour did not tee off until 3:05 p.m., leaving little wiggle room for potential weather delays.
Lee wasn’t thinking about that when she birdied two of her first three holes to take a one-shot lead. Then a thunderstorm rolled through. The two-hour-plus suspension meant two things: the final round could not be completed on Sunday, and Lee had to withdraw from her scheduled Women’s Open sectional qualifier on Monday at Hermitage Country Club in Manakin-Sabot, Va., about 90 minutes from the Kingsmill Resort.
Lee knew that a victory at Kingsmill would automatically grant her an exemption into the Women’s Open, as if she needed more incentive to notch her first win. She and Minjee Lee, of Australia, the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior champion who beat Alison in the 36-hole final, were facing identical circumstances. Both were entered in Monday’s qualifier and both were in contention to win at Kingsmill.
During the suspension, Alison texted her mother in California to change her flight home. She also chatted with her agent about contacting the USGA to inquire about the possibility of changing qualifying sites.
When play resumed, Minjee Lee took control of the tournament, shooting 7 under from Nos. 7-15, including an eagle 3 at the par-5 15th. Alison trailed by four with four holes to play when the horns blew to suspend play for darkness.
“Around 8:30 [that night], my agent told me he had already talked with the USGA to see about a different qualifier,” said Lee, who wasn’t about to withdraw from Kingsmill to compete at Hermitage. Her scouting mission there the previous weekend, in which she had recorded an ace on one of the par 3s, had been for naught.
Now Lee had to focus not only on the final holes of the tournament, but also change flights and hope the USGA would grant a change in qualifying venue in case she didn’t win the Kingsmill event. Minjee Lee took the title by two strokes over 2011 U.S. Women’s Open champion So Yeon Ryu, with Alison Lee in solo third, three shots back. Minjee was now exempt, but Alison still needed to qualify.
After a summer of 2014 in which she helped the USA reclaim the Curtis Cup, reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur and represented her country at the Women’s World Amateur Team Championship in Japan, Lee decided to pursue a career on the LPGA Tour. When she shared medalist honors with Minjee Lee at the Q-School finals in December, she eschewed her final 2½ years of college eligibility at UCLA, where she had won the inaugural Annika Award in May as college golf’s top female player. She was also the Pacific-12 Conference’s player and freshman of the year.
Success has continued since she joined the LPGA Tour in February. Through nine events, Lee has made six cuts and posted two top-five finishes, but Kingsmill was the closest she had come to victory. With the Women’s Open now seven weeks away, Lee had limited qualifying options: 36-hole sectional qualifying, winning an LPGA Tour-sanctioned event or getting inside the top 50 of the Rolex Women’s Rankings by July 5. The first option looked precarious with the Monday finish. The second option was possible, but only four chances remained prior to the championship. The third option was feasible, considering that she moved from No. 100 to 61 on the Rolex Rankings following Kingsmill.
Nevertheless, Lee wasn’t prepared to eliminate the chance to compete in sectional qualifying.
Around midday on May 18, Lee got word from the USGA that she could play in California the following day. The next challenge was getting home in time.
The first obstacle was paying $3,000 to change flights, since her airline had only first-class seats available. Fortunately for her, the third-place finish at Kingsmill provided her more financial cushion for the expense.
“I don’t usually fly first class,” said Lee.
Another setback awaited her at the Richmond, Va., airport. Thunderstorms in Atlanta, where she was connecting to Los Angeles, had caused a flight delay.
Could the situation get any worse? Would she now miss her backup qualifier due to more weather issues?
She did get to Atlanta, but missed her scheduled connection. Fortunately, another flight was available, and Lee finally landed in Los Angeles at 9:15 p.m. And there was more good news: all of her luggage, including golf clubs, came down the baggage carousel. By midnight, she was home.
Five hours later, she was back on the road with her father for the 90-minute commute to Goose Creek ahead of the notorious LA rush-hour traffic.
“I definitely was a bit grumpy,” said Lee. “I changed my golf bag back to my [smaller] UCLA bag, so [my father] didn’t have to lug around a big staff bag. But I was cranky. In the end, I just had to accept it. I told myself not to think about [the situation] too much. I knew what I had to do to make it into the Open.”
Although she grew up in Southern California and played many tournaments in the region, Lee had never played Goose Creek. So the first stop was the pro shop to buy a yardage book.
Lee went out and carded an even-par 71 in the morning, which included a double bogey on 18. A couple of golfers had posted under-par rounds, but when the winds picked up in the afternoon, so did the scores. Lee managed a 73, despite not recording a birdie. After signing her card, an anxious Lee strolled toward the scoreboard. There are no leader boards at qualifiers, so players rely on word of mouth for updates and Lee had not heard anything.
“I was really nervous,” she said. “But when I came in, I was tied for first.”
Lee immediately tweeted out the results, and the supportive comments came flooding in. Her phone blew up with congratulatory text messages.
A relieved Lee just wanted to close her eyes.
“I think I fell asleep in the car for the 90-minute drive,” said Lee. “I was knocked out.”
The odyssey had concluded. She was now in the U.S. Women’s Open, a championship she cherishes. In 2009 as an unheralded 14-year-old, Lee had tied for 26th at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem, Pa., about an hour northeast of Lancaster. Her memories of that week remain crystal clear.
Last year when she failed to qualify for Pinehurst, Lee was utterly disappointed, a sour feeling that lasted for several months.
“I had to wait another year to make it again,” said Lee. “This tournament is really important to me. It has a really special place in my heart.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.