Min Woo Lee awoke on Monday morning to news he had dreamed of reading since he was a kid: the West Australian had cracked the world’s top 50 golfers for the first time.
Lee, 23, climbed to No.49 on the Official World Golf Rankings courtesy of a sensational year highlighted by a European Tour win at the Scottish Open in July and three top-10s from his last four events of the season.
The younger brother of LPGA Tour star Minjee Lee is now within striking distance of securing a debut invitation to the Masters at Augusta National should his ranking hold until December 31.
But the rankings milestone, which brings Australia’s number of male players in the top 50 up to five, is actually five-and-a-half years in the making.
It also involves Tiger Woods.
The seeds were sown at the 2016 Sage Valley Junior Invitational, a prestigious 54-hole junior event in South Carolina at a course located 30 minutes from Augusta National.
Lee, then a 17-year-old amateur, had opened the first round of the with a lacklustre one-over par 73.
He set about correcting his swing on the range when a voice interrupted him from behind. “What are you doing!?”
Lee spun around and saw the hulking figure of golf great Woods, standing beside his long-time friend and former PGA Tour player Notah Begay.
“You’re just hitting driver after driver, mindlessly,” Woods, then a 14-time Major winner, told Lee in a flurry of constructive but harsh criticism.
Woods could see Lee’s raw power and shot-making ability, so he hung around for 30 minutes drilling Lee on how to practise with intent.
“You see that tree, there?” Woods asked Lee at the time. “Always practise hitting at targets. If you’re going to draw the ball, aim at that tree and bend it back to that one.”
Woods’ feedback worked miracles. The next day, Lee posted a one-under par 71, before coming home with the lowest final round by four shots. Lee’s closing 67 earned him a five-under tournament total and a runner-up finish.
Months later, Lee became the first ever Australian to win the US Junior Amateur, a United States Golf Association title Woods took pride in winning himself three years in a row when he was a kid. To this day, that three-peat remains a record.
The lesson also lit a fire inside Lee and inspired a promise to himself that he’d never again hit balls at a tournament without having a clear goal for each shot.
Fast forward more than five years and Lee is a two-time winner on the European Tour who should soon gain exemptions into more Majors courtesy of his place within the world’s top 50.
Lee told Australian Golf Digest via text on Monday that his 2016 encounter with Woods was pivotal.
“It was big,” he said. “The Sage Valley was a big tournament in my junior career which set me up for the professional game.”
He said the ascension into the top 50 was a special moment in his life.
“It means a whole lot to me; but there’s still a lot of work to be done,” he said. “I want to be the best in the world and while top 50 is a big step, I still have my eye on the prize.”
But it’s not an excuse to take his foot off the pedal. He isn’t in the 2022 Masters just yet.
Plus, resting on his laurels could risk another ear bashing from Woods.