DALY CITY, Calif. –- Alison Lee is like the Mother Theresa of junior golf. She has a soft spot in her heart for everyone, even Lydia Ko, the girl she had to knock off to get to the final of the U.S. Girls’ Junior. It was a major milestone for her career.
“After the match was over I was kind of bummed because she has a lot of expectations too because she’s No. 1, but I’m glad I won in the end,” Lee said of 15-year-old Ko. “I still have feelings for how she feels because I’ve been there before.”
Nevermind that Ko, who Lee still calls a “little girl,” happens to be the top-ranked female amateur in the world. A humble Lee wouldn’t say it in so many words, but overcoming a No. 1 player had a nice feel to it. It brought a smile, at least.
Friday afternoon was a surreal moment for Lee. In her sixth and final U.S. Girls’ Junior – she’ll turn 18 before next year’s event, thus becoming ineligible – Lee felt a little bit old. She remembered what it was like playing her first one as a 12-year-old. She didn’t know anyone, and called herself just a small and scrawny little kid back then.
After a tidy 2-and-1 victory over Ko that included crucial up-and-down pars whenever necessary, Lee stepped over to a group of small kids standing off the 18th green and began signing autographs. Next thing you know she was signing shirts, trading jokes and posing for pictures. A group of fellow players stood with her – many had stuck around just to follow Lee’s match.
Advancing to the final at a U.S. Girls’ Junior is on many a young player’s bucket list. It was on Lee’s, too – especially after talking with some of her older golf friends. They stressed the meaning of this USGA event, and Lee was itching to get here even if she wasn’t really expecting it.
“It made me feel like I really have to try hard and I got really lucky because I’m hitting the ball really well this week,” she said.
Already in 2012 Lee has won the Annika Invitational (her first AJGA invitational victory) and qualified for two of the first three LPGA majors (the Kraft Nabisco Championship and the U.S. Women’s Open, where she made the cut). It’s been some year.
“I only have a few tournaments left before the summer is over so I just want to end with a really good year because this is my last full year of junior golf,” said Lee, a UCLA commit.
It’s been some year for Ko, too. And it’s been some week. Before meeting Lee in the semifinals, Ko had been past No. 12 only once since stroke play. It wasn’t surprising, as Ko was a favorite at the beginning of the week. She won the New South Wales Open earlier in the year, and entered the Girls’ Junior fresh off low amateur honors at the U.S. Women’s Open.
After four practice rounds at Lake Merced, two stroke-play qualifying rounds and three rounds of match play, Ko found it a little hard to get out of bed Friday morning.
“This morning I was like, ‘I have to play 18 holes – at least,’” she said. “But you know, it was OK. After I woke up I was like, ‘I’m ready to go.’”
From here, Ko will make her way to Ohio, where she hopes to find a course at which she can practice until next month’s U.S. Women’s Amateur at The Country Club in Cleveland. There’s no sense flying all the way back to a New Zealand winter when there’s golf to be played here. She’ll welcome warmer Midwest weather, and doesn’t really mind missing classes back home at the Pinehurst School.
“I got a golf scholarship for the school so it doesn’t really matter but I have exams when I come back so it’s not too good,” she said.
On the opposite side of the quarterfinal bracket, a similar upset took place. Ariya Jutanugarn, right behind Ko in the World Amateur rankings, looked unstoppable after making seven birdies in her morning match to defeat Casie Cathrea, 3 and 1. In the afternoon, against World No. 8 Minjee Lee, she simply ran out of birdies.
After the match, Jutanugarn lamented missing three 3-footers in a row at Nos. 12, 13 and 14. She couldn’t get anything going and was teetering on the edge of a loss when Lee missed a 4-footer for par at No. 14. Ariya won that hole and the next, but lost at No. 17, 2 and 1.
“I don’t know what happened,” Jutanugarn said.
Lee had many more words, which she released rapid fire after sitting down to take her shoes off.
“Happy,” she said. “Thank God. Relief. Obviously. Pumped. Excited. I’m ready.”
Lee entered the match with the mindset that she wasn’t going to lose, even if she was facing a favorite. She won the first hole before Lee pulled back to all square, then won Nos. 4, 5 and 7 to get to 3 up. She waved her hand at letting Jutanugarn briefly back into the match with her missed short putt at No. 14.
“It wasn’t hard to close it,” she said, “but she was just making par.”
This week is only the second time Lee, of Perth, Australia, has played golf in the U.S. She also played last year’s AJGA Thunderbird International, and met Jutanugarn there. No one informed Lee just how cold it might be here in the San Francisco Bay area, so she only packed two pairs of long pants – one bright red, which she wore on Friday, the other bright blue, which she will sport for the final.
Lee is a junior in high school, and is still considering the possibility of playing college golf in the U.S. She’ll meet up with many of her Australian national squad teammates at the end of the month in The Woodlands, Texas, for a golf retreat. After the U.S. Women’s Amateur in early August, she’ll go back to Perth.
She hopes with a trophy in tow.
• • •
2012 U.S. GIRLS’ JUNIOR SEMIFINAL RESULTS
- Minjee Lee def. Ariya Jutanugarn, 2 and 1
- Alison Lee def. Lydia Ko, 2 and 1