Aussie Minjee Lee stages comeback for Girls' Jr. win
DALY CITY, Calif. –- Minjee Lee has an uncanny ability to dig out whatever is necessary to win a match. It happened time and time again on Saturday at Lake Merced Golf Club as Lee bailed herself out of rough, bunkers, awkward stances and tree trouble. With her normal tee-to-green prowess missing during the championship match of the U.S. Girls’ Junior, Lee became queen of the up-and-down.
“She just had a bad day but the good thing was that her short game was truly outstanding,” said Ritchie Smith, Lee’s swing instructor and a Golf Australia national coach. “She did scramble amazingly well all day.”
Facing Alison Lee, a 17-year-old from Valencia, Calif., Minjee, 16, fought through the opening 18 holes with six up-and-down pars. Five of those earned her a halve, and she took a 1-up lead to lunch. The afternoon was a different story.
An assembled crowd of a few hundred roared when Minjee stuffed her approach shot to 2 feet at the par-3 third. Minutes later Alison holed a 30-footer to halve the hole. Alison won four of the next nine to get to 3 up, the biggest margin of the day.
“I thought I was going to lose, honestly,” Minjee said of that point in the match. “I was like, ‘How do I get back up from here?’ I just pulled myself together and I was like, ‘Just go for it.’ You’ve got an opening.”
She won the next four holes. When Alison three-putted No. 16 from 8 feet for bogey then hung a birdie putt on the lip at No. 17, Minjee went to the final hole 1 up. Both players parred the 18th and minutes later Minjee and mother Clara were tearfully embracing.
“I learned something about myself today,” Minjee said of her biggest comeback to date.
Minjee earned a spot in the U.S. Girls’ Junior based on her World Amateur Golf Ranking. The top 75 players earned spots, and she’s No. 8. Had it not been for that realization – plus advice from one of her Golf Australia coaches to play USGA events at every opportunity – Minjee might have been preparing for next week’s Women’s Trans Amateur. That was the original plan. She started this trans-continental trip at the Callaway Junior World Championship on July 10, and after finishing T-7 in her age division, told Clara this would be her week.
“That was a warm-up, now I’m going to win the Girls’ Junior,” Clara remembers her daughter saying. “You’ll see.”
The Junior World was the first true test of golf for Minjee since taking a three-month break at the beginning of the year because of a broken ankle she sustained in a golf cart accident. She had never been away from the sport that long, and was itching to get back.
It was with a determined mindset that Minjee advanced through her semifinal match against Ariya Jutanugarn, Golfweek’s top-ranked junior and the No. 2 player in the World Amateur rankings. Jutanugarn, the defending champion, had been blitzing opponents all week. Minjee took it calmly, and when Jutanugarn didn’t produce her A-game, Minjee laid down the hammer. She won, 2 and 1.
Still, Minjee called the match against Alison more difficult. She fought back, even if she did come up short.
Alison, in her sixth and final U.S. Girls’ Junior appearance, advanced to the championship match for the first time in her career this week. When she found herself 3 up, her hands began to shake and she lost her focus. With this experience under her belt, Alison said that won’t happen again. Still, a day during which she struggled to get anything going on the greens left a bad taste in her mouth.
“I’d rather have lost my first match than lose my match for the championship,” she said.
There will be other days for Alison Lee, even if they aren’t at the Girls’ Junior. She’s on the road at junior and amateur events for the next three weeks before returning to her senior year in high school, and will join the UCLA roster in the fall of 2013.
With a one-for-one record in USGA championships, Minjee seems destined to stick around, too. She becomes just the eighth Australian player to have her name engraved on a USGA trophy, and she’s the first Aussie winner of the U.S. Girls’ Junior. To be lumped into the same category as Down Under female phenoms Karrie Webb and Jan Stephenson, also among that list, prompts Minjee to put a hand to her heart.
“I haven’t even won an Aussie Open, and I’ve won a U.S. (national championship),” she said of where the Girls’ Junior stands in her career highlights. “It’s really up there.”
Minjee Lee def. Alison Lee, 1 up