MINJEE IN THE MIRROR

Minjee Lee has been the standout performer in women’s golf in 2022. As the US Women’s Open champion headed to the AIG Women’s Open with high hopes of adding another major to her growing tally, she revealed what drives her to succeed.  

This story won the 2022 Australian Golf Media Association Best Reportage of Women’s Golf award. 

 

It’s a beautiful sight, the swing of Minjee Lee. So graceful it is mesmerising to watch. So smooth and seemingly effortless, yet with unseen power than can be harnessed at will. And so elegant, it brings to mind the beautiful swan native to her home state, Western Australia.

Yet like that swan, beneath the calm and serene surface there is much going on. For it takes not just a great swing but a lot of other skills and qualities to hold a major trophy aloft.

minjee lee

In the wake of her brilliant and dominant win in the 2022 US Women’s Open Championship – her second major in 11 months – Minjee was hailed as the hottest golfer on the planet and even as the player most likely to challenge Australia’s greatest, Karrie Webb and Peter Thomson.

Is this so? Probably to the first, and very possibly to the second.

What is certain is that Minjee is the embodiment of the modern champion. In her possession are all the natural attributes needed as well as those learned along the way.

For the little Minjee, golf was a natural thing to do. From a golfing family, her first sport of choice was swimming before moving over to golf at around 10.

“Because we (she and brother Min Woo) were always around it, it just felt natural to start it,” she recalled.

Her earliest memories are of chipping and hitting balls at the driving range with mum Clara and of playing with other kids in the Royal Fremantle Go Go Golf junior program. There she learned driving, chipping and putting and enjoyed the company of the other kids. Crucially, she learned two other things: love of the game and the thrill of competition.

“I think I really found the joy in being with my peers and just having fun and laughing and hanging out with my teachers. And I liked the competition. We used to play little games, putting and chipping games hitting it into the circles around the pin, and that was fun for me.”

So was learning itself. Head Teaching Professional at Royal Fremantle, Andy Mowat, who taught Minjee for a couple of years before she moved over to Ritchie Smith at age 12, remembers her as a keen student, happy in her own space and a very good listener who practised diligently.

That diligence paid off quickly. Success in junior events and championships followed and dreams of grander achievement began to form. For some kids, playing in the backyard means winning Wimbledon or The Ashes; for Minjee the sight of idol Karrie Webb and others holding aloft the US Women’s Trophy ignited her desire to follow suit.

“One of the first things I watched on TV, I don’t even know what age I was, I remember they played a flashback of Webby’s win and the trophy looked like something you’d want to hold up, it was just cool, and I thought, ‘oh, I want to be able to do that’, it would be such a great moment.”

Now she has. But her focus remains unchallenged by the realisation of her childhood dream.

“It’s not hard for me to stay focussed. My goals at the start of the year were around the majors but there are a certain few that I haven’t met yet since I haven’t played the whole year. I feel like there’s always something I want to get better at, and I think that’s why I really like the game.”

You have to love someone who enjoys homework.

No champion has ever escaped adversity in their journey and for Minjee, the same. In 2012, just days after she had finished runner-up to Lydia Ko in the Australian Women’s Amateur (having lost the final the previous year on the 38th hole), Minjee fractured her ankle in two places in a freak accident, putting her out of golf for several months. The timing was terrible. It forced her to miss the NSW Open, Australian Ladies Masters and the first Women’s Australian Open co-sanctioned with the LPGA Tour at Royal Melbourne.

A lesser person – and she was just 15 – might have lost focus. Not she. The mettle we recognise was there in her coming back to win the US Junior Girls Championship, overcoming a deficit of three holes down with six to play by winning four on the trot to close it out one-up over Alison Lee.

minjee lee

The rest is history. As an amateur, she claimed the 2013 and 2014 Australian Women’s Amateur titles, won the 2014 Oates Vic Open which delivered her the world number one amateur ranking she held through the remainder of her amateur career (she won it a second time, as a professional, in 2018), partnered Karrie in the inaugural International Crown in 2014 (the only amateur) and was part of the victorious Australian team in the 2014 World Amateur Teams Championship (the Espirito Santo Trophy) before turning professional in September 2014.

It gets better. In her debut event, The Evian Championship – in its second year as the fifth women’s major – she finished tied 16th.

“It was really, really cool. It was my first time there and I had the greatest experience. I remember finishing and thinking, ‘oh man, I can’t believe I just finished in the top-20!”, so every time I go to Evian, that debut memory is there.”

Fast forward seven years to the final round of the 2021 running in which Minjee came from seven shots behind to catch leader Jeongeun Lee6 and then birdie the playoff hole for her first major.

The grit she showed in that win has been a feature of many of her wins. Partly in the wins themselves, some from behind and some from the toughest spot, leading from start to finish. But it’s also in her ability to reset when needed.

In her maiden major victory, she led the putting stats. By the time what would be her second major rolled around, she led in most stats – but not putting. Needless to say, there was much commentary on this, a lot of it unjustified. For there are two ways to view statistics: reality and distorted reality. Not for nothing did Mark Twain write, “Figures often beguile me.”

In terms of reality, behind the scenes she and her team – coach Smith and biomechanist Ryan Lumsden – had been on this for some time.

One of the major positives in Minjee’s game is her consistency. In her career since 2015, she has missed just 13 cuts. When she missed five of them in her first full season – three in a row – Smith and Lumsden tweaked a couple of things and a few weeks later she recorded her rookie victory, The Pure Silk Championship at Kingsmill Resort.

A disappointing missed cut at the Lotte Championship in Hawaii in April last year put the focus on putting, Minjee herself feeling she had ‘the yips’. The team review was extensive and resulted in equipment change, reverting to a Scotty Cameron blade she had used well previously, moving to a left hand low grip and work on co-ordinating speed and line.

minjee lee

“If you look at her, technically she’s not bad. With the good putters, some of their strokes might be awful but they hole putts, so what is it that makes them so good? It’s probably their ability to see the line and then hit the line the way they think they see it. And we’ve been working on that with her,” said Smith.

Lumsden added: “The analysis last year allowed us to address a few things and it’s made a difference.”

That it has, culminating in her claiming the Cognizant Founders Cup and the US Women’s Open in a three-week span from late May to early June, plus a strong T2 in the KPMG Women’s PGA in late June. But this whirlwind of brilliant performance is where the distorted reality comes in.

Minjee has long worked with the team on increasing length and dialling in approach shots. And it’s paid off. In an article for LPGA News at the time of the Founders Cup, respected golf journalist Steve Eubanks compared her ball striking and proximity to the hole against men’s world number one Scottie Scheffler. In shots 100-125, 125-150 and 150-175 yards from the hole, Minjee outgunned Scheffler every time.

“When you’re hitting as many shots as close as she does, it can appear to people that she’s missing a lot of putts,” noted Lumsden. “That’s why she’s always being questioned about her putting.”

Minjee herself is unperturbed by the criticism. “I feel like because my ball striking has been so ‘on’, people may see my putting as a little bit weaker than other parts of my game but I really don’t feel that I putt that badly because I’m constantly near the hole. And sometimes you’re just going to miss. I feel like when I’m under pressure I’m a great putter, will step up and perform, but I feel like that’s the level I should be at even when I’m not under pressure. So that’s my goal in putting.”

When Smith was asked about the seemingly sudden turnaround in form, he responded, “She’s been working on those areas for 10 years! You can make changes two, three, four years ago but not see the benefit till now.”

Not for him to be a slave to statistics either: “There’s a real structure to how you do things. You can’t just be working ad hoc every time you see them.”

So, to Muirfield and the 2022 AIG Women’s Open, the last of the season’s majors.

Minjee comes into this year’s championship with outstanding credentials. In seven Open starts she has racked up an impressive four top-10s, an 11th and a T25.

Muirfield, in East Lothian, Scotland, is something of an unknown quantity for the women, given the limited number of events for them hosted there. Its last significant women’s event was the 1984 Curtis Cup.

The club dates back to 1744 yet here in 2022 it can attest to only 19 women members, 12 of those admitted in 2019, two years after The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers finally voted to include women. It took a second vote to get there and only after the R&A removed the club from the men’s Open rota in 2016 for its recalcitrance.

Created by Old Tom Morris in 1891 and later redesigned by Harry Colt, it is considered by those who have played there to be a stern test, made more so by the presence of the wind which, due to the way the holes are laid out, can be blowing from quite different directions.

Minjee will head into the championship as one of the favoured picks. “She’ll be one of the favourites and if she’s not, she’ll be very close to it,” said Smith. “I think she’ll rip it round there.”

Smith hopes the course will be set up to challenge and that the wind will be blowing. Minjee does too.

“I think that if the wind is up, it will separate the good ball strikers and the not so good. I grew up in Perth and I’ve practised in wind all the time. Now I live in Dallas and it’s windy every day, so it feels like I’ve got a lot of wind shots,” she said.

What else does she think she will need to do well?

minjee lee

“I definitely think smart play on the par-threes. And I think the big key around links golf and its windy conditions is just don’t make a big score, take out the double so even if you make bogey, it’s less costly. So, smart play and play the wind. You’re also going to need some creativity round the greens and lag putts will be very important because the greens are probably going to be on the slower side.”

Lumsden, born in St Andrews, thinks Minjee’s superb iron play will be an advantage.

“You’ve got to be a good ball striker. You’re not pressuring the ball properly in wind. The effect of the wind affects all shots but even more so as you go down the bag, where trajectory is higher and more susceptible to wind but also because there are higher spin rates on the ball with higher lofted clubs.”

With a good showing over the women’s Open and the remainder of the year, attaining the number one ranking is highly achievable. At the time of writing, she leads the Race to CME Globe, the Rolex Player of the Year, the Official Money List and the AON Risk Reward Challenge as well as a number of categories culminating in the Scoring Average, and is number three on Rolex world rankings.

In early 2019 she hit number two and was one good result shy of the top ranking. But these days she is a more complete player and more comfortable in herself. From a diamond in the rough she is now a polished jewel of the highest calibre. She ticks all the boxes in requisites of the modern champion player – natural ability, love for the game, determination, self-belief, resilience, composure and with a great team around her.

Of Smith and Lumsden she said: “They just want the best for their athletes and they always think about the wellbeing of the person before the golfer. They are constants in my life. They have my back and I’ll always have theirs.”

This gratitude is also the hallmark of a great champion, as is the desire to leave a legacy. In this she seeks to mirror Webb, whose Karrie Webb Series Scholarship she earned in 2013 and 2014. 

“Webby did so many things for us when we were coming through. I’m not sure I’d ever be as influential as her, but I hope I can be closer or be able to inspire just one little girl or boy to play or follow their dreams. That’s why I came into the game of golf and that’s how I would like to leave it. It’s really important.”

To this end, Minjee is an ambassador for the Golf Australia junior introductory program MyGolf and whenever she returns home to Australia, there are large crowds of children following her in tournaments. Minjee also makes a point of returning to Royal Fremantle, where it all started, to mix with the members and spend time with the youngsters.

Mowat said: “She and Min Woo come back and buy the kids lunch and play putting comps and chip around the greens with them. It’s an amazing thing. I think she’s got golf in perspective, it’s something she does rather than something that defines her.

“She’s all those things that are great about golf, a great ambassador for the game and a great motivator for women and girls, a great role model.”

Asked what gives her most pride over the journey so far, Minjee points to two things: resilience and a desire to remain humble.

“I try to get better every single day, whether that’s me as a person or in golf. I try to do a good thing every day. I feel like in the face of adversity, I really try to step up and try to make the best of things.

“And I feel like I’ve tried to be humble. I think that’s what I’m most proud of, after some wins and two major championships, I’m still the same me. I don’t want to change because of a trophy. The trophy is nice to win but it’s better to be a good person. Be a good person first and the golf is second.”

First published in Golf Australia magazine August 2022

Images credit: WPGA Tour of Australasia

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