Golf Australia

Lee returns for even bigger 2019

Minjee Lee
Minjee Lee after winning the 2018 Vic Open.
 

With each occasion that she packs her bags in Perth and treks off to 13th Beach for the Vic Open, Minjee Lee comes with a different hue as a player.  

 

In 2014, when she won the event for the first time, she was just 17 and an amateur, the budding superstar awaiting her denouement. She won by six, as if to emphasise the point: here was the arrival of something special in the game. 

 

In February 2018, when she won for the second time, it was as a full-flowered touring professional, a multiple winner on the LPGA Tour in far-flung parts of the world. Again, her domination was striking: she won by five in a strong field without raising a metaphorical sweat. 

 

In 2019, she’ll arrive on the Bellarine Peninsula having added a bunch more glowing paragraphs in her curriculum vitae. She comes as the reigning Greg Norman medallist, the first woman to carry the honour as the best Australian golfer of the year, for instance. “It’s probably the biggest award we can receive,” she said. “So it’s just an amazing honour and it justifies all the hard work and practice that I’ve done.” 

 

She’s breached the top 10 in the world for the first time and ultimately climbed into the top five, and she really should have a higher profile than what she does. Imagine, for a moment, had a 22-year-old man reached those heights? But that’s an argument for another day. 

 

Lee will be back to defend her title in the ISPS Handa Vic Open from February 7-10, fresh from an off-season holiday and delighted to know that, for the first time, it will be an LPGA Tour event with all the bells and whistles that come with that. Not to mention that with the tournament leading into the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open at The Grange in Adelaide, also an LPGA event, it gives the players more reasons to come down from Europe, Asia and America. 

 

“I didn’t really know that was going to happen but it’s good,” Lee said. “The tournament will get much more exposure, I think, and the girls will love playing Down Under. Even the concept of having the men and the women playing together is so different. 

 

“I get to see all the people I pretty much grew up with playing golf. That’s pretty cool. I really do like it there. The venue’s great. I don’t think you could have a better venue than that, and obviously the fans can walk behind you. There’s no roping off. I think that’s what makes the tournament a bit more special and a bit different to what you normally get. I think that’s a good thing.” 

 

The 2018 season was her watershed year on the world’s biggest tour. She won once – the Volvik Championship in Michigan in May, to take her record to four US Tour wins – but it was her consistency that raised eyebrows. She finished second on the money list with more than $US1.5 million and she logged an astonishing 13 top-10 finishes and was second three times. 

 

In April in San Francisco, she reached a playoff with former world number one Lydia Ko and had to sit back and watch from 30 metres farther up the fairway as Ko hit one of the shots of the golfing year – a three wood to within a metre of the cup. The Kiwi’s eagle trumped Lee’s birdie and gave her the win. 

 

Lee was left grasping at pragmatism. “I just tried to put myself in contention and if it went my way, then I win,” she said. “I think everything happens for a reason. In the long run, the seconds that I did have will be great experience for me. There’s always something that you can learn out of your results. I guess you can analyse the ways to get better, so I think of it as a positive, not a negative. 

 

“She (Lydia) is just an accomplished player, so young but so accomplished, and she knows exactly what she’s doing. At the end of the day, I can’t really do anything about what she’s doing. I worry about the things that I can control. 

 

“I still made a birdie! It’s not like I just gave it away. It was a great experience for me just to get into that playoff, so I think I should be proud of myself.” 

 

Her coach, Ritchie Smith, thought she could have easily won four times rather than one. For instance, in Japan in November, she led into the final round but faded with a 78 to drop out of the top-10, a fact he puts down to illness. “She was crook all week,” Smith said. “I don’t think that happens if she’s fully fit.” 

 

Smith believes improved concentration is one of the keys to her future improvement, pointing to the relatively low conversion rate of top-10s into wins. “We know that her concentration is not great,” he said. “It’s not fear. She does not fear winning. But we know that her concentration could be better.” 

 

Smith believes Lee improved every area of her game in 2018, pointing to her sandsave statistics, the numbers for putting from three to five feet, and her chipping results as indicators. Smith and Lee have a list of 25 statistics that they use as KPIs; in 2018, she improved 23 of them. “I find that amazing,” he said. “Over the last two years her three-to-five feet has improved from 69 percent (made) to 86 percent. Which is the key one, I think. And people don’t give her credit for how good she chips. She just doesn’t make many bogeys. She’s just a very good player now.’’ 

 

Lee believes her great season was the result of natural maturity, rather than anything technical. Four years into her touring professional life, she has a home that she bought in Dallas, set up by her mother Clara, who travels with her most of the time. “After three years on tour, I know my routines and I just know how to manage things on the road. Everything’s a little bit better, so I’m a little more experienced.’’ 

 

She’s not in Texas all that often but it gives her a sense of being grounded. “It is nice to have that space because you can go back for a couple of days off, and you don’t have that nomadic life of going to a hotel. I can go home to Dallas, relax for a couple of days, and it’s a familiar place rather than somewhere new every time.’’ 

 

Her younger brother Min Woo might be joining her soon enough. Like Lee, he is a US junior champion who has been dominant in amateur ranks; when he turns professional, she could find herself with a housemate. “Yes, I know!” she said. “I told him he might pay rent!” 

 

Smith believes that Lee is only beginning. He thinks she could win even more in 2019. “She’s running a pretty good business. It could be a bit better, but she’s very professional.’’ 

 

Lee expects that her season will start at 13th Beach, meaning she will likely pass the first tournament in America so that she is fully rested. The clubs went away for a time, but soon enough, she will be ready to tee it up and the cycle will begin again. Improvement is the goal, incremental gains. 

 

“It’s probably the little things,” she said. “It could be focus or the mental side, the psychological side, maybe get a bit more consistent in my fitness routine. I mean, I know that technically it’s all there. I can keep it consistent and put myself in contention, so I think it’ll come down to the little things.”  


Comments

Posted by John Stone at
27/12/2018 10:09 PM
I was never a big fan of the LPGA but Minjee has totally changed my attitude. I feel very patriotic when watching her (& the other Aussie girls) playing. I hope she has another great year on the tour.

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