Just before the start of Minjee Lee’s victory press conference at the Amundi Evian Championship, she was muttering to herself.
“I just can’t believe it,” Lee said.
It succinctly described the historic 18-under-par effort for Lee’s first victory in a Major. The serenity of the Evian Resort Golf Club, nestled in the mountains overlooking Lake Geneva, masked the mayhem that unfolded Sunday for Lee to join Hall of Famers Patty Sheehan and Karrie Webb as the three to come from seven shots behind to win an LPGA Major.
Lee did so on Sunday by birdieing four of the last five holes to shoot a seven-under 64 and get into a playoff with Jeongeun Lee6, the third-round leader who stumbled with a 71. Lee then won on the first extra hole, the 18th, with a birdie.
“I’m speechless,” said Lee, the 25-year-old from Perth who now has six LPGA Tour wins. “I’ve been waiting for this for so long. It just feels unreal to have won. Just even in the playoff, and all throughout today, I played really well to get myself in that position, and I’m just really happy.”
Seven-shot comebacks require two things to happen. The leader needs to falter, and the chaser needs to go low. At the 1983 LPGA Championship, Sheehan overcame a seven-stroke deficit with a 66, passing 54-hole leader Sandra Haynie’s 75 for a two-shot victory. Webb’s seven-shot comeback at the 2006 Kraft Nabisco (now ANA Inspiration) was accomplished with a final-round 65 to Lorena Ochoa’s 72, with the Aussie winning in a playoff.
Lee6 shot even par, including 39 on the front nine, to open the door for Lee. Lee6 birdied the first hole, creating the sense she might break the recent trend of Sunday leaders at the Evian Championship struggling to close. But five painful bogeys followed on her front nine, including three in a row from the third to the fifth. Lee6 lost the lead on the eighth, with Yealimi Noh catching her at 15-under.
“I feel just no good [on the front],” Lee6 said. “I tried my best, but results were no good.”
The dreadful front side for Lee6 swung the door open for the chasers. Lee finished the front with a three-under 32 to sit at 14-under, one back of Noh, while 2015 Evian winner Lydia Ko was at 13-under.
Lee kept the scoring chances flowing, with makeable birdie opportunities on holes 10 to 13, but she was still two behind Noh. It was then that a conversation with her caddie of four years, Jason Gilroyed, seemed to turn the momentum around.
“Gilly, my caddie, said, ‘You know, you have a chance to win your first Major championship, so why don’t you just give it a go,’” Lee recalled. “I said, ‘Yeah, I’m trying.’ But we just kind of had that chat and then the next hole I birdied.”
The scoring burst open from there, with Lee making birdies at 14, 15, 16 and 18 to finish at 18-under.
Lee walked off the 18th as Lee6 and Noh, two back each, had short birdie putts on the 17th. Lee figured at least one of them would catch her and went to the practice green to stay loose. Lee marched back and forth from hitting putts to walking towards the 18th green whenever the crowd made noise.
Noh and Lee6 made their birdies on the 17th, and both pursuers had chances on the 18th. Lee6 hit the 455-yard par-5 in two, and Noh set up an eight-foot putt for birdie after laying up from the rough.
Lee6’s eagle bid ran three feet past the hole, nearly completing a miraculous come-from-behind victory of her own. After Noh missed her chance to get into a playoff, Lee, the 2019 US Women’s Open champion, punched home her third consecutive birdie to scramble back to 18-under, right where she started Sunday.
Lee and Lee6 loaded up into carts to head back to the 18th for their sudden-death playoff, with Lee 0-2 and Lee6 0-1 in their LPGA playoff careers. Lee said she thought about the eagle Ko made to beat her in her last playoff appearance at the 2018 LPGA Mediheal Championship and wanted to break her playoff drought.
Lee had shot five-under on the 18th for the week before teeing off first in the playoff. Both players hit the fairway before Lee’s approach that won the championship. “I think the yardage was for 5-iron but with adrenaline and everything Gilly was like, ‘Let’s go 6-iron,’” Lee explained. “[I] hit a good 6-iron and it was like six feet from the hole. It worked out.”
Lee’s strike put the pressure on Lee6, who thinned her second into the water in front of the green. It became a formality for Lee’s birdie to win the playoff and join Webb, Jan Stephenson and Hannah Green as the four Australians to win Majors in LPGA history.
“They’re just all amazing people and amazing golfers, too,” Lee said. “You know, it just has a really nice ring to it.”
Lee’s win marks nine consecutive Majors on the LPGA won by first-time Major champions, dating back to Hinako Shibuno at the 2019 AIG Women’s Open.
It’s two playoff victories in three weeks for the Lee family, as her younger brother, Min Woo Lee, won the Scottish Open in a three-way playoff. Minjee Lee will fly to Dallas to see her brother before heading to Tokyo to represent Australia at the Olympics.
“The Olympics have been on the back of my mind since Rio,” said Lee, who tied for seventh in Brazil in 2016. “So I’m really excited to play and go out there and rep my country.”
She will do so as a Major champion now.