Lee Fulfilling Golf Dream Despite Life-Altering Tragedy
September 14, 2019 | Parker, Colo.
By David Shefter, USGA
Aaron Lee’s journey to the 39th U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship is one of triumph, tragedy and tenacity.
The native of the Republic of Korea – born in Seoul, Lee, 29, has lived in Southern California since the age of 10 but is a permanent resident hoping to soon become an American citizen – didn’t reach this juncture through conventional means.
He didn’t come up through the junior ranks, isn’t a child of the country-club scene nor did he play high-level college golf. His path encountered several pitfalls, including the suicide of his father, Duck Hee (Daniel) Lee at the age of 49 when Aaron was 21. His family was evicted multiple times from rental properties in Simi Valley, a bedroom community 50 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Lee, in fact, didn’t hit a golf ball until he was a year removed from graduating Simi Valley High in 2009.
Lee’s first love was basketball, even though he was strictly a varsity reserve. Golf, he thought, was too boring and finesse. Even when the family lived in golf-crazed Korea, Lee never saw a golf course or the omnipresent driving ranges. Throughout high school, his dad kept urging him to take up the game, but it wasn’t until he visited an uncle, Kwan Hee Lee, in the Koreatown section of Los Angeles that he first picked up a club. His uncle had an indoor-fitting-type studio with a simulator and Lee was handed a driver. His first swat drew plenty of contact, but like a lot of beginners, his ball had a nasty slice.
Lee, however, loved the feeling of club meeting ball. Even though his dad had limited financial resources, he offered to send the oldest of his three boys to a Korean PGA member who happened to be based in the San Francisco Bay area. Lee spent six months in Alameda, practicing and playing under the instructor’s guidance. But back home, things were not going well. His father’s depression worsened due to financial woes. Daniel, who battled polio and walked with a cane, had emigrated from Korea to be a driving instructor. He wanted Aaron to succeed so he sacrificed limited funds. Two months after Aaron returned home, Daniel went to a shooting range, rented a gun and killed himself.
“My youngest brother (Jonah) was only 13 so it affected him the most,” said Aaron, recalling one of the lowest points in his life. “It was really tough on my mom (Sung Joo). She didn’t know what to do. She had thoughts of returning to Korea, but we had adjusted to life here [in the U.S.], so relocating was not an option.”
To help make ends meet, Aaron took a janitorial job at Simi Hills Golf Course, a local public facility. He cleaned bathrooms, refilled the water coolers and picked the range. In turn, he had a place to practice and play. It was on the driving range one late afternoon that he befriended PGA professional James Jordan out of Woodley Lakes Golf Course. When Jordan heard his story, he offered to help Lee with his golf game. Eventually, he enrolled at Ventura Junior College in 2012. During his two years at Ventura, his best finish was a tie for third in an early-season two-day event during his sophomore season.
While there, he took a job at Sunset Hills Country Club in Thousand Oaks, which is when he met his future wife, Paula, a former national age-group swimmer from the Philippines. Paula, a swim teacher, and Aaron got married in April.
His on-course performance drew interest from Division-II Cal State, San Bernardino. The coach offered a two-thirds scholarship, which the financially strapped Lee gladly accepted. There was, however, one issue. A few weeks into the semester, the school’s athletic director delivered some bad news. Due to the three-year gap between high school graduation and junior college, Lee’s final two years of NCAA eligibility were voided. He could attend classes, but was not permitted to play. With golf out of the picture, a distraught Lee dropped out.
“I definitely wanted to continue pursuing golf,” said Lee. “But my financial situation wasn’t good. And I still wasn’t good enough to try pro golf. I didn’t know anyone who could sponsor me.”
He moved back home into a two-bedroom apartment with his mom and youngest brother. Middle brother Joshua had since enlisted in the U.S. Army and is currently stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. To help support the family, Aaron took a caddie job at Annandale Country Club in Pasadena for a couple of months before moving over to his current position as a full-time caddie at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles in early 2017.
The Bel-Air caddie yard does have a history with the USGA. Greg Puga, who grew up in east Los Angeles, won the 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur. Lee didn’t know him when he first started looping at the posh club, which hosted the 1976 U.S. Amateur and was the stroke-play co-host for the 2017 U.S. Amateur. In fact, Lee caddied for 2014 U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Scott Harvey in 2017.
“Super-nice kid,” said Harvey in a text message.
Having access to a world-class facility on Mondays and caddieing for the likes of former professional tennis player Mardy Fish, actor Jack Wagner and other celebrity members provided some financial means for Lee to take his game to the next level.
“We don’t talk about my golf game out there,” said Lee, adding that Bel-Air has been a terrific club at which to work. “I try to stay out of their way, especially with the celebrities.”
Lee, who had tried to qualify for the U.S. Amateur when he was at Ventura College and the U.S. Mid-Amateur after turning 25, felt a bit more confident going into this year’s qualifier at La Cumbre Country Club in Santa Barbara. A few weeks earlier, he had posted a career-best 63 at Buenaventura Golf Course. At La Cumbre, Lee carded a 70 and then survived a 4-for-3 playoff for the last spots. A day later while caddieing for his ladies’ group at Bel-Air, he mentioned that he would not be available the third week of September. That news didn’t stay quiet for long. They informed head pro David Podas and soon a sign was posted outside the pro shop congratulating caddie Aaron Lee on earning his spot.
A husband from that group even got a few friends together to help cover some of Lee’s travel expenses. Another Bel-Air caddie, Edgar Sanchez, made the trip to Colorado to carry his bag, joining Lee’s wife. Puga also offered congratulations to his fellow Bel-Air caddie
“He wished me good luck,” said Lee. “We don’t really talk too much. I’ve heard some of his stories of going to the Masters [in 2001] and playing a [practice round] with Arnold Palmer. He’s talked about the whole experience [of winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur].”
To prepare, Lee took Wednesdays off. Going into Saturday’s first round at stroke-play co-host venue CommonGround Golf Course, he felt strongly about his short game and ability to keep the ball in play off the tee. Naturally, he’s nervous about teeing it up for the first time in a national championship. But given the adversity he’s gone through, he seems more than ready to tackle the challenge.
“I’m not trying to do too much,” said Lee of his approach to stroke play. “I played Colorado Golf Club [on Thursday]. It was set up tough. The greens are super firm. I’ll try to play conservatively, but aggressive at the same time. I just have to play my game.”
Ten years ago, Lee had graduated high school without knowing what was next. In that time span, he’s lost his father to suicide, dealt with financial hardship and discovered a new passion. His support system – mom, youngest brother, wife and five pets – all reside in a three-bedroom apartment.
“I would feel guilty if I ever left her alone,” said Lee of his mother.
This week, however, Lee is among the game’s elite. He can be inspired by Puga’s Cinderella story from 2000, rising from humble surroundings to become a USGA champion.
“I definitely have a chip on my shoulder,” said Lee.
Perhaps he’ll punctuate it with his own title by next Thursday.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.