Back in early 2015, we had it all worked out. Minjee Lee was rising up the ranks as a plucky 18-year-old with the golf world at her feet.
While a young girl from New Zealand named Lydia Ko was stealing international headlines, Royal Fremantle prodigy Minjee was quietly going about her business. The infectious smile that accompanied her on the golf course belied the reality of a young woman who was ultra-determined to leave her mark on women’s professional golf.
At the same time, her fitness routine was becoming the stuff of legend. She was squatting 80 kilograms of weight and deadlifting more than 100. Not overly impressive numbers to some, but this was a teenage girl who tipped the scales at just 56kg. Such numbers left industry experts hailing her as the fittest golfer on the planet.
We, too, were convinced and contacted her management to organise a cover shoot, focusing on her tireless gym routine. But there was a late hiccup: Minjee decided she didn’t want to do it, almost perplexed at the thought of gaining publicity for her athletic prowess. We respected her decision but knew it was an opportunity lost, if not for her national profile, for her adoring fans.
Despite the setback, we persevered with a different approach and made the decision to put her on the cover of our April ‘Masters issue’, with the headline “The Next One”.
A somewhat controversial decision at the time, it had Australia’s golf community talking – even if Minjee wasn’t. But one of the few quotes we did manage to squeeze out of her that day was telling.
“It might be a long way away, or it might not be, but world No.1 is where any golfer wants to get to. I still want to be world No.1, but I’m going to take one step at a time,” she said. Fast-forward to today and our cover star from April 2015 [inset] is agonisingly close to achieving her wildest dreams. World No.2 (at the time of print) after overtaking LPGA superstars Ariya Jutanugarn and Sung Hyun Park, Minjee’s climb up the totem pole of world golf could be just days away from reaching its summit. Yet it’s the 23-year-old’s remarkable climb and even more remarkable snubbing by television and newspapers back home that’s shone a light on the sport’s demise in the mainstream media.
After winning the LA Open by four shots at the end of April to seal her fifth career title on the LPGA Tour, one would have expected some extensive media coverage of one of Australia’s best athletes.
Sadly, no. With the exception of a few paragraphs in our tabloids, courtesy of the wire services, Minjee’s latest achievement was yet again given the cold shoulder by sports editors across the country. It was enough to leave Golf Australia media manager Mark Hayes seething, who took the opportunity to launch a scathing attack on his former employer via the Inside The Ropes podcast, which he co-hosts.
“I was devastated with some of the media coverage. What the Herald Sun – my old employer – did today was nothing short of embarrassing,” Hayes said, referencing a small article on Minjee’s Hollywood heroics. “I just cannot believe a woman winning a golf tournament on the foremost tour in the world, rising to No.2 in the world, 22 years of age in this era of female sport that’s coming through and finally getting its dues, that it would be relegated back to an inside-right page, small picture, four paragraphs… It’s straight-out embarrassing.”
So why is it that a prodigiously talented young woman who’s taking on the world and winning, and signing mega endorsement deals with foreign companies, is having such a tough time resonating with her native audience? And who’s at fault?
In an age when the popularity of women’s sport has hit unchartered territory, with cricket and AFL shining examples, golf still seems to be stuck in a timewarp when it comes to celebrating our champions. Is the Aussie media archaic, perhaps still operating on a theory that female athletes – particuarly golfers – don’t sell papers? Or does the blame lie with the players themselves, as suggested by Hayes’ podcast co-host Mike Clayton: “Do we talk about the elephant in the room? [Minjee] is not the greatest interview in sport. How much is a player’s persona tied up in how well they play and how much they present themselves? I think if she wants more recognition she needs to be more open and better at telling her story.”
It’s a fair point. After all, by her own admission Minjee is shy and far from her happy place when speaking with media. But so was Karrie Webb, yet she eventually found peace with the scribes to enjoy the fame that came with her fortune.
There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being introverted but Minjee would do well to take a leaf out of the book of Aussie tennis sensation Ash Barty, also 23. The world No.8’s newfound confidence and charisma has seen an entire nation cling to her every move – and she’s lapped it up with a sense of responsibility to the future of tennis.
One feels the ball is in Minjee’s court, too.