Lee Follows in Aussie Mentor Webb’s Footsteps at Pine Needles

By Ron Sirak

| Jun 05, 2022 | SOUTHERN PINES, N.C.

Lee Follows in Aussie Mentor Webb’s Footsteps at Pine Needles

77th U.S. Women's Open Home

For Minjee Lee, golf is a family affair as well as a matter of national pride. With her brother Min Woo Lee, they are the only siblings to win the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the U.S. Junior Amateur championships. And on Sunday she joined her mentor, fellow Australian Karrie Webb, as a champion of the U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica.

Lee dominated all week at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, opening a three-stroke lead over Mina Harigae after 54 holes with rounds of 67-66-67. She began Sunday’s final round with two birdies and never looked back. Her final-round 71 put her at 13-under-par 271, the lowest score in the championship’s 77-year history, four strokes better than runner-up Harigae, the closest anyone got all day.

The victory, the biggest of her career both in her trophy case and in her bank account, was her eighth on the LPGA Tour and meant she has won two of the last four major championships. Her first was the Amundi Evian Championship last July.

“I mean, I'm speechless,” Lee said with the winner’s Mickey Wright Gold Medal around her neck. “I can't believe it right now. It's just super, super special and just a great honor. It's been my dream since I was a little girl. It's the one that I always wanted to win; now I've done it, and just feels amazing.”

To make the irony doubly sweet, Webb won the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open right here at Pine Needles, which made her the last to successfully defend her title. Lee twice received a Karrie Webb Scholarship through the Golf Australia youth program and in 2013 was hosted by the World Golf Hall of Fame member during the week of the U.S. Women’s Open at Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island, staying at Webb’s rental house.

“I’ve known Minjee since she was about 13 or 14,” said Webb, who also won the 2000 U.S. Women’s Open at the Merit Club near Chicago. “She won my scholarship in 2013 and 2014. In ‘13, she came to Sebonack with Su Oh. And in 2014 we had the same winners but Minjee qualified to play that year as well.”

Lee’s first U.S. Women’s Open was at Pinehurst No. 2, just a few miles from Pine Needles, and she finished T-22 in 2014. She has played the championship every year since with her best finish T-11 in 2017 at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster in New Jersey. And when Lee won her first LPGA Tour major last year at the Amundi Evian, one of the first text messages she received was from Webb.

“She did message me straightaway,” Lee said. “She messages me quite a bit. It's just really nice of her. Over the years, she's been so supportive of my golf and just me as a person, so it's just been really nice to have her in my corner.”

Lee got the job done at Pine Needles by being rock solid in all aspects of the game, hitting fairways, hitting greens and making putts. On Sunday, anytime it appeared as if she might falter, she rolled in a crucial par putt and never let anyone make a run at her.

“Minjee has always been very self-driven and someone who learned by watching and observing or experiencing,” said Webb, who has seven major championships among her 41 LPGA Tour victories. “She’s played great on all aspects this week but I’ve loved how composed she’s been,” Webb said. “I’m excited to see her hold the trophy!”

Lee, 26, has been a consistent performer since joining the Tour in 2015, winning at least once in six of her eight seasons, including this year at the Cognizant Founders Cup before taking the U.S. Women’s Open. But there were also a lot of near-misses, finishing second 11 times and third on 10 occasions. She started to take her game to a higher level after 2020, when she represented Australia in The Olympics, finishing 29th.

“I think she’s grown tremendously as a player and a person in the last couple of years which has really shown in her golf,” Webb said. “I think all the close calls and not getting it done have helped her. Winning Evian, sort of out of the blue showed her she can win without being at her best. She’s only gone from strength to strength since then.”

The $1.8 million first prize is more than Lee has earned in any single season. Her biggest year was in 2018 when she earned $1.55 million with a win, three runner-up finishes and two third-place efforts. She is now over $10 million in career earnings.

“We're only moving in the right direction,” Lee said about the record $10 million prize money this week. “I think it's only going to get better and better from here. It's such a large sum, and I'm really honored to be the first winner of this sum.”

Minjee, 26, won the 2012 U.S. Girls’ Junior at age 16 and her brother Min Woo won the 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur. Their mother, Clara, is a teaching professional. Min Woo, 23, turned heads at the Masters this year, shooting a 29 on the first nine on Sunday on his way to a T-14 finish. He’ll tee it up in his first U.S. Open at The Country Club in two weeks.

With her victory, Lee joins the esteemed group of Mickey Wright, JoAnne Carner, Hollis Stacy, Amy Alcott, Inbee Park and Ariya Jutanugarn as winners of both the U.S. Girls’ Junior and the U.S. Women’s Open. Next year at Pebble Beach Golf Links, she will try to join Webb as a multiple U.S. Women’s Open champion and as a back-to-back winner.

The road for Lee from Australia to the winner’s circle at the U.S. Women’s Open Presented by ProMedica had many potholes, but along the way she also had as her GPS the Golf Australia junior program and the Karrie Webb Scholarship. The journey did not end Sunday at the Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club, but it did enter new territory. Ten years after winning the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Minjee Lee is once again a USGA champion.

Ron Sirak is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA digital channels.