Eighteen-year-old Danny Lee of New Zealand became the youngest winner in U.S. Amateur Championship history Sunday when he put on a birdie clinic in defeating Drew Kittleson, 19, of Scottsdale, Ariz., 5 and 4, in the scheduled 36-hole final match at Pinehurst No. 2.
"I feel like I’m in a dreamland, I really can’t believe it," Lee said. "Drew played very well today and he put the pressure back on me this afternoon, but I just tried to hang in there and hit good shots."
One month past his 18th birthday, Lee is six months younger than Tiger Woods was in 1994, when Woods won the first of his three consecutive Amateur titles. Lee also became the second consecutive player from New Zealand to win a USGA championship at Pinehurst, following Michael Campbell’s victory in the 2005 U.S. Open. "I guess this golf course likes New Zealanders," said Lee with a smile.
In addition, Lee is the fourth international champion to win the U.S. Amateur title in the last six years (Nick Flanagan in 2003; Edoardo Molinari in 2005; Richie Ramsay in 2006).
Lee initially fell behind Kittleson and was 2 down through six holes before taking the lead for good midway through the morning. Lee carded four birdies over a seven-hole stretch to grab a 5-up advantage through the first 18 holes.
After the break, Kittleson was able to cut into Lee’s lead and was only 2 down through 26 holes before the Rotorua High School senior regained control of the match with back-to-back birdies on the par-3 ninth (hole 27) and the par-5 10th (hole 28), to go 4 up. Lee closed out the championship by sinking a dramatic, 35-foot birdie putt on the par-4 14th hole, the 32nd of the match.
"After I fell behind this morning, I just tried to come out and make something happen, and I felt like I did," said Kittleson, a Florida State sophomore. "But I guess I just caught him on the wrong day."
Instead of becoming frustrated, Kittleson applauded Lee's superlative effort.
Lee was the equivalent of 11 under par (13 birdies, two bogeys) over the 32 holes played on the 7,281-yard, par-70, layout that has hosted two U.S. Opens in the last 10 years. Kittleson was five under par. "Now that I look at it," said Kittleson, "it was kind of fun to watch. What are you going to do?"
Lee earned custody of the Havemeyer Trophy for the ensuing year as well as a spot in the 2009 British Open, while both finalists earned a full exemption to the 2009 U.S. Open and a probable invitation to the 2009 Masters Tournament.
After some speculation that the teenage prodigy might turn professional later this summer, Lee confirmed that his plans have changed.
"There’s no way I’m going to turn pro now," said Lee. "I can’t wait to play in those major championships, because I think that will be great experience for me."
The U.S. Amateur is one of 13 national championships conducted annually by the United States Golf Association, 10 of which are strictly for amateurs.