14 Jul 2021 | Feature stories |

CLAYTON: the journey of Min Woo Lee

by Mike Clayton

Min Woo Lee lines up a putt during the final round of his victory at the Scottish Open.

It hardly took the keenest eye for talent to see Minjee Lee’s little brother could really play golf. She was always the family star, but coming behind in the shadows was Min Woo who won his share of amateur honours and barely missed winning the 2017 Australian Amateur on a day when he easily could have won.

Inevitably he turned pro because in this era few with any ability choose not to. In a way it’s a pity because to trawl through two decades Australian Amateur champions is to wonder what happened to those who never even really got a foot on to the bottom of professional golf’s ladder.

Since 2000, Cameron’s Smith and Davis have been the standouts but of the rest, many have found employment that did not involve missing cuts and wondering how to pay the hotel bill.

Like so many of this Australian generation, Lee presumably sees the US Tour as the ultimate objective and my sense was, he would choose the path of the secondary tour in the United States, one where the top 25 money leaders graduate to the big league.

It’s the chosen route of Ryan Ruffels, Brett Coletta and Curtis Luck, a trio of new ones judged a couple of years ago to be most likely to succeed.  For the ones who don’t make it out, it’s a professional graveyard.

Early in 2019 Lee got an invitation into the European Tour event in Saudi Arabia and finished fourth. From there he curiously skipped the Vic Open (another European event) to play a Korn Ferry tournament in America where he missed the cut. He flew back to Perth and the European co-sanctioned Perth Super 6 where his fifth place (losing a quarter-final match) all but guaranteed him a card on the European Tour.

By the end of the season, he hadn’t quite earn enough (largely because he underestimated how much money he would need to be on the right side of the line) but weeks later Lee won the 2020 Vic Open (yet another European Tour event) and secured his employment for the rest of the year.

He was on his way – except he wasn’t. The next 16 tournaments compromised a sixth place in the English Open, an 11th, a 30th an 72nd and a dozen missed cuts. How was such a bad run possible for one so obviously talented?

He broke a run of half a dozen Friday night hotel checkouts at the World Golf Championship in Florida (where, in fairness, there was no cut) with a 28th place. It doesn’t look significant, but all the best players were there and in the next five weeks he has seen weekend action all but once.

Still, there was nothing to suggest he might win last week’s Scottish Open, one of the biggest money events on the European Tour with a field – and a golf course -- commensurate with the status of the event.

Learning to play professional golf far from home on unfamiliar courses whilst all the while dealing with living in a bubble of golf course and room service can’t be easy, but anyone who saw the two perfect shots Lee hit into the first hole of the playoff with Matt Fitzpatrick and Thomas Detry must have wondered why to this point his golf has been so inconsistent.

It’s not anything to be too bothered about because consistency is vastly overrated anyway. Most professional golfers make 80 percent of their money in 20 percent of their tournaments and the good news for Lee is his best golf is both very good and compelling to watch.

He’s not so far from the top 50 in the world now and cracking that barrier is the best way onto the PGA Tour – something he didn’t know a couple of years ago but surely does now.

The other thing he didn’t know last Monday was that he’d be playing at Royal St George’s this week in golf’s greatest championship. It’s a course sure to spin the heads of first-timers but like Lee’s golf, it’s compelling, quirky and brilliant all at the same time.

 

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