Aussie Rules: Minjee Lee Rolls to Title at Pine Needles
When Minjee Lee first announced her presence at a USGA championship a decade ago by winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship, she was asked by Golf Channel reporter Steve Burkowski if more USGA titles were in the offing.
Her two-word answer: “I’m coming.”
That might have sounded like bravado, but it turned out to be prophetic.
After registering an impressive four-stroke victory on Sunday at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club in the 77th U.S. Women’s Open Championship Presented by ProMedica, the 26-year-old Australian joined a Hall-of-Fame group of players to have claimed both the U.S. Girls’ Junior and U.S. Women’s Open.
Lee, No. 4 in the Rolex Rankings, now shares that distinction with the likes of Mickey Wright, JoAnne Gunderson Carner, Hollis Stacy, Amy Alcott, Inbee Park and Ariya Jutanugarn.
“I mean, this is pretty special,” said Lee. “This is the one I've always wanted to win since I was a little kid, so it just feels pretty amazing to be able to get it done today. I just can't believe it.”
Lee might have missed out on becoming the second player in Women’s Open history to post four sub-70 rounds, but an even-par 71 gave her a 72-hole total of 13-under 271, enabling her to eclipse the 72-hole scoring record of 272 shared by Juli Inkster, In Gee Chun and Annika Sorenstam, who first posted that score in successfully defending her U.S. Women’s Open title at Pine Needles in 1996.
Challenging hole locations combined with firm conditions made scoring conditions the toughest of the week on Sunday, and only two players – Hyejin Choi (70) and 2019 champion Jeongeun Lee6 (69) – broke par on the Donald Ross gem. The final-round scoring average of 75.2 was 3½ strokes higher than Saturday’s Round 3 and nearly two strokes higher than either of the first two rounds.
Mina Harigae, who entered the final round three strokes back of Lee, fought through the challenging conditions to shoot a 1-over 72 and finish solo second at 9-under 275. Choi, the runner-up in 2017 as a 17-year-old amateur and now an LPGA Tour rookie, finished third at 7-under 277, one ahead of world No. 1 Jin Young Ko. World No. 3 Lydia Ko was another stroke back at 5-under 279.
“This is definitely top one or two highlights of my career,” said Harigae, who is still searching for her first win on the LPGA Tour in her 13th season. “Obviously, just the prize money [$1.08 million], but solo second in a major, and that's my best by far. Really happy with it.”
Meanwhile, Lee’s weekend performance at Pine Needles was reminiscent of her mentor and idol, Karrie Webb. She might not have romped to an eight-stroke victory like Webb did here in 2001, but her fight and tenacity certainly equaled that of the steely World Golf Hall of Fame inductee.
Lee started with two quick birdies but gave them back with bogeys on the par-3 fifth and par-4 seventh.
Just when things looked as if they might go south under the final-round pressure of a major championship, Lee, sporting a lime green polo with the words “Win At All Costs” on the back, answered with clutch par saves at Nos. 9 (9 feet), 11 (8 feet), 13 (13 feet) and 14 (7 feet). Each time she converted, Lee maintained a safe distance over Harigae and other potential pursuers.
For most of the second nine, Lee, who broke through for her first major title last July at the Amundi Evian Championship in France, owned a six-stroke advantage on the field. Bogeys at the par-3 16th and par-4 closing hole trimmed the deficit to its final margin of four.
“I didn't hit it that well,” said Lee. “I had really good [par] saves, up-and-downs from a lot of the places, and then finishing I had a couple birdies and a couple bogeys. I think that was enough to get it done today.”
When Lee sank the short bogey putt on 18, she raised her arms in celebration and hugged her caddie Jason Gilroyed, who happened to be on the bag for the 2007 champion at Pine Needles, Cristie Kerr. She also was congratulated by longtime friend and rival Lydia Ko.
“I think she played amazing,” said Ko. “It's hard even if you have a comfortable lead going into the last day. It's hard because especially at the U.S. Women's Open, anything can happen. For her to be so composed … just shows what kind of world-class player she is.”
“I just said to myself, this is pretty amazing. This is pretty cool, just looking at the whole crowd and just everybody down the fairways. It was a pretty special moment for me.” – Minjee Lee on what she felt walking down the 18th hole
“I think this will be huge for all the little girls and even the boys and the children watching. I know there's been a really big [golf] boom in WA (Western Australia). The girls have been a lot more interested in playing, so hopefully they watch me on TV, and I can be a good role model and they'll start getting more involved.” – Lee
“I'm not going to lie, my stomach hurt the last couple holes coming down [the stretch]. I was really stressed out, but I was really just focusing on one shot at a time, making solid contact, and just hitting good putts.” – Mina Harigae (9-under 275) on earning $1.08 million for finishing second, the largest prize ever for a runner-up in women’s golf.
“Yeah, I think we all try and peak at the majors. You're just trying to play the best golf you can and at the same time try not to think of it any differently than any other event. But to play solidly, it just shows what point my game is at.” – Lydia Ko after her fifth-place finish
“It was definitely a battle out there. The greens kind of got a little crispy. Pins were obviously [tough]. It's a Sunday of a U.S. [Women’s] Open. We were all expecting it. The wind was definitely gusting a little, as well. I'm pretty happy with how this week went. Had no expectations. I actually had my best finish in the Women's Open, so maybe I should just keep that going.” – world No. 2 Nelly Korda (2-under 282) after a tie for eighth following a four-month hiatus due to a blood clot in her left arm
“The crowds are awesome. This week you see a ton of families out here, a ton of kids. I love seeing that personally. Kids are a lot of fun to interact with as well as their parents. It's nice to see the next generation coming up, and I think these are like possibly the biggest crowds we've had in a while given the weather.” – Megan Khang (2-under 282) on the atmosphere at Pine Needles
“It's a long week. We don't play a lot of 72-hole tournaments [in college]. Most of them are 54 holes and they're usually 36-18 or 18-18-18. [I’m] not really used to it. I was a little tired going into today.” – low amateur Ingrid Lindblad after tying for 11th
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.