Min Woo Lee has found his happy place in the US, from Augusta National to the PGA Tour and everywhere in between.
[Getty Images: Quality Sport Images]
The decision to skip a few holes during a practice round and hop in front of Tiger Woods is always a bold one. Play fast, or risk holding up the 15-time Major winner as he prepares. That decision is even braver at Augusta National, where five-time Masters champion Woods reigns supreme. But last year, on a quiet Tuesday afternoon, Min Woo Lee jumped from Augusta National’s 10th to its 15th due to approaching storms, and that move meant cutting in front of Woods and his good mates, Fred Couples and Justin Thomas.
Lee immediately noticed the enormous galleries on each hole waiting for Woods to come through. At the par-3 16th, Lee faced a wait on the tee, and so he turned to the crowd bulging over the ropes. Woods was hitting pitch shots into the par-5 15th.
“You guys came to see me?” Lee asked the crowd, which burst into laughter. Most had no idea who he was. It was April 2022, and Lee, the younger brother of LPGA superstar Minjee, was only several months into his push to transition from the DP World Tour, where he’s a two-time winner, to the PGA Tour. Already, Lee had a way with the crowds. It’s not like Australia; showmanship is encouraged in the US.
Lee’s 2022 campaign was a mixed bag. The downside was he was unsuccessful in his bid to earn a promotion to the PGA Tour. Lee was teeing up in PGA Tour events courtesy of a combination of sponsor’s invitations and by getting into tournaments via his world ranking (inside the top 100). At the end of the 2021-2022 season, Lee held enough FedEx Cup points to enter the secondary Korn Ferry Tour finals, where 25 PGA Tour cards were on offer. Two missed cuts in its finals series bundled him out of the top 25.
The upside was Lee performed well in his first full year of Major championships. At the Masters, on his Augusta debut, he made the cut on the number and finished in a tie for 14th. After a missed cut at the PGA Championship, Lee then earned a share of 27th at the US Open, again on his event debut, before an impressive share of 21st place at the 150th Open Championship – won by countryman Cameron Smith at St Andrews’ Old Course.
Lee ended 2022 and began 2023 in hot form. Fourth place at the Australian PGA Championship, another event won by Smith, and third at the Australian Open set up Lee’s run in the DP World Tour’s Middle East swing in January. The 24-year-old finished in a tie for second at the Abu Dhabi HSBC event, just one shot behind winner Victor Perez. Lee followed that with a tie for 13th in Dubai. He was ready for another shot at a PGA Tour card.
A clutch tie for 26th at the Honda Classic in Florida secured Lee’s spot in the Players Championship via the top 50 on the world ranking. At the PGA Tour’s flagship event at TPC Sawgrass, Lee shocked many American fans, commentators and media who knew little about the former US Junior Amateur champion when he played his way into Sunday’s final group alongside world No.1 Scottie Scheffler. Lee was tied for the lead with 54-hole frontrunner Scheffler early on the last day, before a scorecard implosion relegated him to a share of sixth. Still, Lee had earned his first top-10 on the PGA Tour.
“I guess I’m getting more comfortable over here, but also getting to play a lot of the courses helps with gaining experience,” Lee tells Australian Golf Digest. “I think I’m gaining a bit of confidence, too. You learn from your mistakes and you get better each time.”
Those mistakes were plentiful on Sunday at the Players Championship, whose stellar field has earned it the reputation as golf’s unofficial fifth Major. Lee had birdied the first hole and by the third found himself atop the leaderboard at the $US25 million event. But disaster struck on his next tee shot; Lee hacked out of the rough at the par-4 fourth at TPC Sawgrass, but his third shot found the water, leading to a triple-bogey 7. A double-bogey came at the normally friendly par-5 11th. Lee was five-over for his round before he birdied the par-5 16th to begin a late fightback. At the 17th, he hit his tee shot to five feet at the famous par 3 and made the putt before celebrating, almost ironically, by waving his arm to the crowd like a windmill. In the end, Lee signed for a 76.
“The crowds over here feel, I dunno, warmer to me now,” Lee says. “That Sunday at Sawgrass, it felt nice just to get the people [cheering] for me. Off the course, more people are coming up and saying hello, out when I’m shopping or at restaurants. I think the Players Championship helped.”
Lee’s social media accounts felt a bump, too. That was in part helped by a shoutout from wildly popular US sports network Barstool Sports via its Fore Play podcast.
“I gained about 35,000 followers from that week,” Lee recalls.
A little help from his friends
As Lee tries to break onto the US circuit, he’s got two experienced tour guides. The Perth pro has befriended two-time Major champion Collin Morikawa and recent Arnold Palmer Invitational winner, Kurt Kitayama. Kitayama pulled off precisely what Lee is attempting to do; in 2021 he made the leap from the DP World Tour, where he had also won twice. Morikawa and Kitayama have been playing practice rounds at PGA Tour events with Lee and taking him out to some of their favourite restaurants. Morikawa is a known foodie.
“My friendship with those two boys has been awesome,” Lee said. “Collin is my age, and Kurt and I are friends from the European tour. It’s a familiar feeling to hang out with people you’ve played golf with for a while and now that there’s a bit of success among the group, it’s even cooler. We all [cheer] for each other on tour, and it’s nice when all of us are in one place.”
They may all be in one place sooner rather than later. Lee is still based in Western Australia, from which travelling to DP World Tour events is only mildly more inconvenient. But when Lee manages to secure PGA Tour status, he will move to the US. Currently, he stays in Texas with sister Minjee. She uses the world-class practice facilities of the Dallas-Fort Worth area to refine her game, which has yielded Majors at the Evian Championship and US Women’s Open, as well as six other LPGA Tour titles. Eventually, though, Min Woo can see himself living in Las Vegas, Nevada, where Kitayama and Morikawa reside. Aside from being free of state income tax, Nevada offers year-round sun, elite courses like Rio Secco and Shadow Creek, and an exciting nightlife and food scene.
“When I’m over in Vegas we (Kitayama and Morikawa) play golf and have dinners,” Lee says. “There are a lot of places I have friends, where I could go, but Vegas might be the place that I move to. It’s a pretty cool spot. There is a lot to do there, there are some really nice golf courses, good food, great weather and good people.”
It’s not to say Lee couldn’t live in the US and compete on the DP World Tour; plenty of professional golfers commute across the Atlantic Ocean to its European events. What would make the move a no-brainer, though, would be securing a PGA Tour card.
There are several ways Lee can achieve that goal. First, he could win a PGA Tour event and secure two years’ worth of status. Second, he can earn Special Temporary Membership, which is when a player accrues the equivalent FedEx Cup points as the previous season’s 125th-ranked player. On the non-member points list, Lee was eighth at the time of writing. And then there is the European route. As part of the strategic alliance with the DP World Tour, the top 10 (not already exempt) on its season-long points standings at the end of this season will be given PGA Tour cards for next season. Lee was fifth at the time of writing, which was “more like third” given superstars Jon Rahm and Rory McIlroy were in the top five but are already PGA Tour members and won’t be counted.
“I’m not really thinking too much about [FedEx Cup] points right now,” Lee said. “Getting a PGA Tour card through non-member points or Special Temporary Membership is very difficult. Yes, I’m very close to it and it is in the back of my head, but I’m just going out there and playing the best I can. I’ve got a few tournaments under my belt and I know if I play well in them, I can achieve [membership]. Looking at the bigger picture, I’m not just trying to get those points, I’m trying to win tournaments on the PGA Tour, like at the Players Championship.”
His peers see the potential heights Lee can reach, including an always-astute Adam Scott.
“He should really push himself because you just don’t know how many opportunities [you’ll have] and how long a career can be,” Scott says. “I’ve been lucky that mine’s drawn out really long, but we’ve seen other guys hit their peak and not play on at a high level forever. I’d really be pushing Min to take advantage of this good run of golf he’s on and see how far he can go. He’s certainly getting a lot more starts in the States and I think that’s really great for his development, but while he’s going well, he shouldn’t be too patient. Min has a really high ceiling with his game. When he plays well, he can obviously contend with the best. As he gets more and more comfortable, I expect him to do that more often.”
Sister Minjee of course doubles as family and a fellow tour player.
“He won the Scottish Open a couple of years ago and I was there when he won the Vic Open in 2020,” she said. “He’s kind of built momentum throughout the years, just getting some professional experience and playing on the DP World Tour and some PGA Tour events. He’s getting quite a lot of experience under his belt now and he’s just showing what he can do out there.”
The go zone
Lee will certainly not think beyond the tournament week when he tees it up in the remaining Major championships of 2023. At the time of writing, Lee was hoping to maintain or improve his world ranking of 59, which was just inside the cut-off for one of the US Open’s qualifying criteria. There are other categories Lee could use to gain entry to the event being held at Los Angeles Country Club’s North course, such as a qualifying series of tournaments on the DP World Tour in May and, as a last resort, 36-hole final qualifying. Lee is already in the 151st Open Championship at Royal Liverpool courtesy of finishing third at last year’s Australian Open, which is an annual event on the Open Championship’s global qualifying series and awards three spots from our national championship.
“I’m so excited for the Majors,” Lee said. “If I’m playing good golf, I think I can compete in them and play well. It’s only my second or third year of Majors and I’m really looking forward to getting more experience in those four events.”
After the Majors season, Lee will continue his push towards the PGA Tour, where his talent and sublime ball-striking could see his star rise further. He’s trusting the process.
“I definitely want to get that card… it’s one of my biggest goals although, like I said before, I try to focus not on that but on tournament by tournament,” he said. “That’s pretty much it for my goals for 2023. The others are just to have fun and be happy, but that’s more of a life goal of mine.”
Inside the bag
Min Woo Lee discusses the differences in his game since putting Callaway’s Paradym driver in his bag in January:
“The Paradym driver and woods been awesome this year,” Lee says. “I don’t like big equipment changes, but when the new stuff was ready for us in Abu Dhabi and Dubai earlier this year, I hit my first drive with the Paradym and I knew it was special. Pure strikes were really solid and the mis-hots were a little bit better.
“My ball speed went up with the Paradym driver, about two to three miles per hour, which is awesome. Usually I don’t get over 190mph; I usually float between 185 and high 180s. But I’ve been hitting it more than 190mph, which is unbelievable. I normally average 275 metres with the driver, but now I’m saying 285 on a flat day with no wind. I’ve picked up between five and 10 metres. That’s also helped by me growing into my body and figuring out my swing, too. It’s a combination of everything.”