04 Mar 2024 | Professional golf |

Minjee and Min Woo share their Australian Story

by Contributor

Minjee and Min Woo Lee

By Leisa Scott and Lisa McGregor

It's the differences between Australia's greatest golf siblings that grab all the attention -Minjee Lee is "the scientist", the disciplined, serious one; her little brother, Min Woo Lee, "the artist" with freewheeling flair.

He's the extrovert, revving up the gallery to the chorus of "Let him cook", the quirky chant that has earned him the nickname The Chef among his 700,000-plus social media followers. She finds the self-promotion of social media awkward.

Even the siblings play up their differences. "Minjee's a straight line," Min Woo tells Australian Story. Always focused on excellence as a golfer, never detouring.

His path in professional golf, he says, has been more "like a random, squiggly line".

And with both now playing at the top tier of the game globally, the ever-present, low-level sibling rivalry has come to the fore.

"I want to do better, a little bit better [than Min Woo]," Minjee says.

Min Woo says it may be petty but he loves to one-up his sister.

All this talk of opposites and rivalry, though, can give the impression that this duo is like oil and water; two diverse personalities with little in common.

But put them together and it's obvious how much this sister and brother like each other. There's a relaxed, playful vibe as they rush to tell a childhood story, talking over each other one minute, finishing each other's sentences the next.

Both herald their sibling's strengths but still manage to get in a few good-natured jibes at each other.

And bond over annoying stuff — like pesky pimples.

In the days after a nailbiting but unsuccessful tilt at the Australian Open women's and men's titles, the duo sits side-by-side, chatting freely, as the Australian Story crew gets ready to film a joint interview. Minjee surveys her brother's face and compliments him on his unblemished forehead.

Min Woo points out a double pimple near his nose, whispering that he made the mistake of popping it.

"I had one, too," Minjee says, grinning as she locates it on her face.

"Acne," says Min Woo into the camera when he realises they've been sprung conducting a skin assessment. "It's a human problem."

But these aren't run-of-the-mill humans; they are superstars of the game of golf.

Minjee, 27, has won two of the Ladies Professional Golf Association's (LPGA) major championships, including the prestigious US Open, with 10 tournament wins in almost 10 years on the circuit.

She's currently number five in the world, with earnings of about $20 million. A survey in 2023 rated her Australia's highest-earning female athlete.

Min Woo, 25, turned pro in 2019, three years after winning the boys' US Junior Amateur Championship, just as his sister had done four years earlier in the girls' comp, making them the first sibling duo to hold the titles.

He's had four professional wins, although never a major, and boasts a career purse of about $5 million, along with a chunk of cash from the endorsement deals his flashy style attracts.

It takes all kinds to succeed in the high-pressure world of golf, says Minjee.

"There is no one correct path," she says. "You take your own path, your own journey to get there."

"Swing your swing," adds Min Woo, who is ranked 42nd in the world right now but makes no secret he's aiming for number one.

As is Minjee, who got tantalisingly close in 2019 and 2022, hitting the number two spot.

"So close," says Min Woo, holding his thumb and index finger a centimetre apart.

"I think I can get there," Minjee says.

Min Woo will brook no doubt. "She'll get there, she'll get there. Not you think you can," he chides his sister. "You will."

He's even prepared to put a timeframe on it. This will be Minjee's year, he says, the year his hard-working big sister will be the world's number one female golfer. If all goes to plan, The Chef won't be far behind.

The moustache, mullet and mock-neck shirt

The way Min Woo tells it, being a hit on social media and positioning himself as the fashion-forward, hip young dude of golf was the only way to trump his more seasoned sister.

She plays too good all the time," he says. "I mean, I'm busting my butt to win a couple of tournaments and she's just doing it regularly so I've got to somehow work my way out of that shadow."

He's been credited with bringing "dirtbag cool" to golf; swaggering about the course in his trademark "mock-neck" shirt, sporting a manicured moustache and short-cut mullet. Sometimes, he tops the look off with a chef's hat, or leads the crowd in a thunderclap.

"I'm just trying to make [golf] younger and cooler," he says.

Min Woo's early years on the circuit weren't dazzling but last year, he captured the attention of US golf lovers at the PGA's Player Championship at the elite Floridian course, Sawgrass.

Despite being the last player selected for the event, it was Min Woo who was at the final tee, battling world number one Scott Scheffler for the trophy.

He didn't make it but won a lot of fans and kudos for his gutsy effort and entertaining style. He's since scored a coveted PGA tour card – a pass to play on the American tour.

"That [event] was a big part of who I am now," he says. "Since then, I've had massive popularity boosts on social media and just around the world."

Minjee prefers a grateful smile and a wave for her fans but she's not surprised by the hubbub Min Woo creates and his social media success.

"I knew with his style, his energy, he would get a lot of attention if his game was trending up."

'The invisible champion of Australia'

Their difference in style was evident from the beginning, when the siblings began playing at Royal Fremantle Golf Club in Western Australia.

Minjee says her brother probably has more natural talent but she was the conscientious one, practising her drives, putts and swings for hours while he was mucking about with trick shots in the rough.

"I didn't do the boring stuff … I did all the crazy stuff," Min Woo says.

"That's why, when I'm behind a tree, I can somehow get it close. While she never really hits into a tree, so there was no point [in her] practising that stuff."

Min Woo says he's been knuckling down on the basics since hitting the pro circuit because "talent only gets you so far and hard work beats a lot".

Still, he says, his sister could probably learn a bit of crazy from him.

Both learned to play golf under the tutelage of their mother Clara, a former golf teacher. Her husband, Soonam, was a swimming and basketball instructor in the couple's home country of South Korea, and a reasonable golfer. Competition is in the blood.

"We were just always around that energy and competitive vibe," says Minjee, whose parents moved to WA in the mid-90s.

"We used to play golf at the local club together and Mum would always want to win."

Not only is Soonam competitive, he's a prankster, too, like his son.

"I learned from the best," Min Woo says.

As a youngster, Min Woo preferred fast-paced sports like basketball but Minjee, also a talented swimmer and clever student, became obsessed with golf. She made the WA junior team at 13 where she was coached by Ritchie Smith. He's still her coach – and Min Woo's – today.

"He's like family to me," Minjee says. "We just have great trust in each other. And obviously, he knows my game really well."

At 18, with the US Junior championship under her belt, Minjee turned professional. Clara joined her on the circuit, while Soonam looked after Min Woo. Within the year, she'd won her first LPGA tournament.

"I was like, 'Oh, man, I won on the LPGA!' Dream come true."

Her climb up the ranks was done the Minjee way — quietly.

In 2019, when she became world No.2 for the first time, headlines heralded her "the invisible champion of Australia". Last year, she didn't even make it onto a list of Australia's most influential sportswomen.

Karrie Webb, Australia's most successful female golfer, says it's disappointing Minjee has not received the recognition she deserves in her home country.

"Winning two majors in less than a year's span [in 2021 and 2022] and almost getting to number one a couple of times, she definitely deserves being spoken about in the same conversation as a lot of top female athletes," Webb says.

Minjee is not too fussed, saying women's golf doesn't have the profile in Australia, or the number of live events, as in the US, where she lives and is well-known.

She feels the pressure to be more active on social media but, she jokes, she will never be as prolific as Min Woo "who loves to post everything". Says Minjee: "It's hard when you're not that kind of person."

Still, if recognition from your peers – not Instagram followers or likes – is the hallmark of success, Minjee is doing OK. Late last year, after recovering from a form slump following the high of the US Open win and a bad dose of COVID, she took out the Greg Norman Medal.

It's Australia's most prestigious golf award and it was Minjee's third time taking it home – a record.

"It was very special to me," says Minjee, given the hard work she put in to climb out of the slump and back into the top five. "I felt like I really deserved it."

There was some stiff competition. Among the contenders were Australia's other well-known, mullet-loving golfer, Cameron Smith – and her brother.

Min Woo took his sister's triumph well, telling Australian Story: "It just motivates me to be in her footsteps and hopefully win it one day."

Min Woo says he's often asked, "Does it suck?" to have such a talented sister. "I think it's amazing," he says. "I'd rather her do well than not."

Webb says having a sibling's support is a big plus on the pro golf circuit, which can be a lonely and tough place.

"Only people that have been there and done that understand what it's like," Webb says. "If that person is totally in your corner, you can really talk about it."

Siblings go toe-to-toe

Together, the Lees are a formidable package – but with a competitive edge. When one wins a tournament, the other is keen to win back bragging rights.

"Min Woo and I, we have a really great relationship," Minjee says, "but I think we have more of a rivalry now, now that we're both winning professional events."

Their coach, Smith, says they push each other to succeed.

"I think they're seeing the benefit of training together … of watching each other's golf," he says.

"It's pretty beneficial for all."

It's quite a change from their days at Royal Fremantle Golf Club, back when Min Woo says his sister would "bite my ear off" any time he came near her on the golf course.

"I always annoyed Minjee and she always got pissed off at me," he says.

"In my eyes," says Minjee, smiling at her little brother, "he was so naughty."

It's taken time and maturity, but Minjee and Min Woo Lee are closer now. Not just to each other but, if their drive is straight and the green is kind, to the holy grail of becoming the best female and male golfer in the world.

You can stream Minjee Lee and Min Woo Lee’s Australian Story documentary now on ABC iview: https://bit.ly/3Paqgajand YouTube: https://bit.ly/3InOzxW

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