by Mark Hayes, Golf Australia
Min Woo Lee has carried the burden – and privilege – of being Minjee Lee’s younger brother around throughout his young golf career.
Now, he has stepped out of her imposing shadow.
The Perth 17-year-old won a twice weather-interrupted final 2&1 on the weekend to become the first Australian winner of the US Junior Boys Championship.
He joined his sister, who won the girls’ equivalent in 2012, to become the first pair of siblings to win the title in its rich history.
After being down early in the 36-hole final against Texan Noah Goodwin, Lee hit back around the turn to pull level. But it wasn’t until the 23rdhole that the Golf Australia national squad member hit the front for the first time.
The pair played some stellar golf and there was never more than two holes in the contest throughout, with Goodwin 1-up as late as the 32ndhole.
But a par-birdie-birdie finish from Lee was a fitting finale to a gripping match, even if he had to wait for 47 minutes – because of a weather delay – over what became the final putt at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tennessee.
“I had a few minutes to come together and just think about that putt, and think about the other putts that I’ve had similar to that one,” Lee said.
“I missed a few low, so I thought I would hit it a bit higher. It went right in the middle.
“It feels great. I’m down in history on the USGA Junior trophy, so it feels really good – it’s probably the best I’ve ever felt.
“It’s a dream come true for me (because) I’ve always wanted to win this tournament.
“I was in good form coming into it and I knew I had a good chance. It feels great to win and be on the trophy with names such as Tiger (Woods).”
Goodwin was generous in his praise of his opponent after their epic clash in which there were a staggering 21 birdies and an eagle combined.
“I couldn’t have lost to a better player,” Goodwin said. “He pushed me and challenged me every single shot today.
“I played my butt off today. I played great. I just got beat by a better player. In the end, that’s what it’s all about. This tournament is just about finding the best player this week.”
The result comes with great benefits.
Both finalists are exempt into next month’s US Amateur at Oakland Hills Country Club and are exempt into sectional qualifying for the 2017 US Open. With the age limit changing to 18 next year, they are also exempt into next year’s US Junior at Flint Hills National in Kansas.
Minjee Lee, representing Australia at the Crown International in Chicago, was immensely proud of her younger brother’s achievement.
“I think we made history, so that’s pretty cool,” Minjee said.
“I just told him at the beginning of the day to just have fun. I’m glad that he came out winning and it’s great for both of us.”
Lee became the first male Australian in 10 years to win a USGA title, the most recent being Geoff Ogilvy in the 2006 US Open. Other notable Australian USGA champions include Nick Flanagan (2003 US Amateur), Karrie Webb (2000 and 2001 US Women’s Open), David Graham (1981 US Open) and Jan Stephenson (1983 US Women’s Open).
Lee, who was greeted by his mother Clara and Golf Australia’s high performance director Brad James as he walked off the 35thgreen, said he was tremendously proud to carry on – and bolster – the momentum of golf “down under”.
“Australian golf, it’s great,” the Royal Fremantle member beamed.
“We have rising talent coming up and it’s great for Australia. I did it to represent them, and it means a lot just because, yeah, you’re representing your country. It means a lot.
“They’ve helped us a lot, our coach Ritchie Smith, coach for Western Australia. Golf in Australia is looking very good. They’re in safe hands, and what they’re doing right now is very good in the junior and amateur (ranks).
“They help us and fund us. They’re wonderful. I saw Brad James on the first hole and it meant a lot. I knew there was a Golf Australia national camp in Houston, and, yeah, it means a lot for him to come out and watch me.
“I didn’t think that I would know anyone back at home to come. Yeah, it meant a lot. It kind of just set me in a little and it was good for him to come out. I thank him a lot for coming. It was great for him to come out there.”
James said Lee’s greatest progress had been made off the course, in particular becoming more organised and self-sufficient with his training.
His ability to compartmentalise both good and bad has been fantastic for much of the past year and onlookers all week noted that he consistently rebounded from poor holes with good ones and didn’t seem to find a pressure-filled putt he couldn’t make.
“Like all kids at this age, he still has a long way to go,” James said.
“But this is a nice stepping stone on the pathway to what he’s really trying to achieve.
“He competes very well under pressure and he loves the big stage. He’s shown that over the last couple years in some of the biggest events in Australia, but this has taken it to another level for him.”
James said Golf Australia would not shy from lofty expectations.
“There’s a good culture with golf in Australia, especially when you’ve got the No.1 player in the world (Jason Day) and Minjee on the LPGA Tour who is competing for majors,” James said.
“The ultimate goal of this program is to produce major champions and Jason has proven that’s possible. That’s a good culture for our younger players to strive for and be around. We’re fortunate right now, we have a lot of young talent developing.”
Lee, the 2015 Western Australia Amateur champion, said he’d taken plenty from the week, but was unsure whether he’d make a flying visit home before taking up his US Amateur berth.
“It’s the best course I’ve ever played. It’s a great match-play course. It’s challenging in every way.
“So it means a lot to win the trophy and hole a few putts coming in. Yeah, that’s just a big momentum booster for me going into a few events.
“It was an honour to play in this championship, but being in the US Amateur, it’s another whole level. It’s the best amateurs in the world, so I know I have to play even better and prepare even better for that tournament.
“How I performed was awesome. I know I can do it in the US Amateur, even if I win or lose.
“I booked flights already to Australia, but the flight is very long. It’s kind of exhausting. I would love to be back home with my dad and my friends. But yeah, it’ll be great to go back home and sleep on my bed.”
[Photo: Min Woo Lee holds the trophy in the final round of match play during the 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur at The Honors Course in Ooltewah, Tenn. on Saturday, July 23, 2016. (Copyright USGA/Darren Carroll)]