U.S. Amateur Champ Lee Soaking Up Masters Experience, Wants More

April 8, 2009

By Dave Shedloski

As he sheds his amateur label after this weekend, Danny Lee is focused on becoming the best pro he can be. (John Mummert/USGA)
Augusta, Ga. - Reigning U.S. Amateur champion Danny Lee is a study in contrasts as he prepares for his debut in the Masters Tournament, which begins Thursday at Augusta National Golf Club.

Lee, 18, the second-youngest player in the field of 96 competitors, has already declared the 73rd Masters Tournament his final event as an amateur. No surprise given that his game has continued to blossom since his impressive victory in the 108th U.S. Amateur last August at Pinehurst No. 2. Proof can be offered in the form of his European Tour victory in the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia earlier this year, which made him the youngest winner in the tour's history.

But whether the New Zealand youth is ready for bigger things isn't clear on the eve of the year's first major, for which he earned an invite thanks to his 5-and-4 win over Drew Kittleson last August at Pinehurst. The kid who supplanted Tiger Woods as the youngest Amateur champion sent some mixed signals when he met with the media Tuesday at Augusta National.

Lee looks ahead to new challenges as a professional, but at the same time, he is struggling with other challenges that come with the transition.

"I just wanted to play on a different level of golf, and I think as an amateur, I've done everything," said Lee, one of three teenagers in the Masters field, of his decision to get going as a touring professional and forgo defending his Amateur crown this summer at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla., not to mention giving up his exemption into the U.S. Open in June. "Winning the U.S. Amateur and winning the Western Amateur and winning the professional event as an amateur … I want to play [on a] harder level and more competitive golf."

It won't get much harder than Augusta National - and the difficulty for Lee extends beyond merely managing his game on the famed golf course. He's looking forward to being a pro golfer, but isn't quite ready for all that comes with it. He admits that. But, then, who is ever really ready for their first Masters?

"I'm having really bad nerves at the moment, seriously," admitted Lee, wearing a Masters sweater to ward off the unseasonably cold Georgia weather. "All of the crowds yesterday, I was nervous, really shaking my clubs, and wasn't swinging properly. I've never seen that many crowds out there, and, you know … one of the greatest players playing in this tournament.

"I'm still nervous, and I'm trying to relax every time and trying to practice hard and see how it goes.

"When I get nervous, I can't really talk properly, because my nerves are breaking down, and I'm having a stomach ache, too. I'm serious," added Lee, who faced only a handful of reporters per day as he marched to his Amateur victory. "I'm trying to relax and trying to calm myself every time, but I know as soon as I go outside the clubhouse and watch all of those crowds out there, I cannot get relaxed or like nice and calm like that. But I'm still working on it."

He's also working on his game. In the wake of his European Tour victory, Lee decided to change his swing, dissatisfied by his follow-through. A conversation with Won Joon Lee (who is coached by Butch Harmon) during the Johnnie Walker prompted Lee to alter his swing. He was one of the last players to leave the range Monday night as he continued to refine things.

"My game is coming around," he said. "I'm working on it."

Lee, who teed off at 1:41 p.m. EDT with defending champion Trevor Immelman and Adam Scott , said he wasn't sure if he would have the game to contend this week, but despite his young age he made a veteran move in hiring a club caddie, Matt Fuzy, who is in his seventh year as a bag carrier at Augusta National. Fuzy, 27, is one of three club caddies on the job this week.

"It's a dream come true, man. I still can't believe it," Fuzy told reporters on Tuesday.

Playing in the Masters is a dream come true for Lee, and he hasn't lost sight of what an opportunity this week presents, whatever the outcome. He already has plenty of highlights, from staying in the Crow's Nest, the traditional lodging in the clubhouse for amateur participants, to getting a putting tip from Ian Poulter, to rubbing shoulders with legends.

"Meeting all of the greatest players in the world, and like I met Gary Player a couple of days ago and he was a really nice guy and he encouraged me to practice harder," Lee said. "He said I've got the greatest golf swing in the world, so I'm really believing in that.

Well, there was one other benefit - potentially.

"I'm sleeping where Tiger [Woods] slept, so that might help me play better," he said.

Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usga.org.


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