Esther Lee searching for 1st AJGA invite title at Polo
PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Soft spoken Esther Lee is barely audible as she recounts a morning at PGA National’s Champions course that left her tied for the early lead. Lee got to 5 under through 16 holes before making bogey at Nos. 16 and 18. Body language wouldn’t have told you that, however. Lee, of Los Alamitos, Calif., is about as even keel as they come, even if she did have a little trouble focusing on the round at hand.
“Going into the back nine 2 under, I was just like, ‘Just get pars and don’t try to overdo it,’” Lee said of her opening round at the Polo Golf Junior Classic. “It’s hard because I’m qualifying for match play, and in my mind I’m still playing stroke play, so I want to play stroke-play tournament format. I was just like, ‘Keep it steady.’”
The Polo is a one-of-a-kind event on the AJGA schedule. Festivities open on Sunday evening with the Rolex Junior All-America Awards Banquet. Ball caps and polos are exchanged for suit jackets and cocktail dresses. It’s junior golf’s version of the red carpet, or “the greatest night in junior golf,” as it’s come to be known. But glitz aside, the Polo marks the end of many junior golf careers, and the beginning of a new season.
This week, Lee is one of the old gals. She’s not even seven days removed from signing her letter of intent to join the Duke roster next fall, and post-round she was dredging up Polo memories from half a decade ago, when the tournament was played at Reunion Resort in Orlando, Fla. Few players in this field can do that.
“It is my last year, so winning it would be nice,” Lee said.
Since that first Polo start, when Lee was only 13 years old, there have been three AJGA titles. She says she’s gotten longer off the tee, by as much as 25 to 30 yards.
What’s noticeably missing in Lee’s career is an AJGA Invitational title. The Junior Solheim (2011) and Junior Ryder Cupper (2012) is No. 4 in Golfweek’s Junior Rankings. She’s now in the same spot as good friend Alison Lee was a year ago, before she won both the Annika and Ping invitationals in 2012. The opportunities are dwindling for Esther as she looks to transition from a schedule full of junior events to one that includes more USGA events as preparation for college.
The thought of moving across the country to Durham, N.C., to enroll at Duke brings two kinds of butterflies to Lee’s stomach. First is the excitement – Lee can remember watching as a little girl while the Blue Devils racked up national titles in 2005, ’06 and ’07.
“Ever since I started golf I wanted to play for the Duke women’s team,” she remembers.
Still, it’s a big move for Lee, who is worried about leaving behind both junior golf friends (like Alison) and family. Older brother John is also a transplanted East Coaster as a freshman on the Army men’s golf team. That’s a comforting factor for Esther.
Aside from the golf, Lee looks forward to the academics at Duke. She admits to being a bookworm and hopes to major in English on the way to a possible law career. She smiles sheepishly as she says she’s the player who always carries a book in her golf bag. Right now she’s enjoying an Asian literature unit in school, especially Siddartha and books about Buddha. Her all-time favorite is Little Women. Lee guesses she’s read that story close to 20 times, or enough that her old copy is beaten, bruised and dog-eared.
It’s a fitting coming-of-age tale for Lee as she authors one of her own.