Few players in professional golf are as honest about their struggles as Alison Lee. The 23-year-old doesn’t hide or make excuses. When a slump hits, Lee doesn’t sugarcoat.
Golf has been a “weird roller-coaster ride” for the uber-talented Lee since her junior days. Still, it was jarring to see her name in the field at the second stage of LPGA Q-School. Only three years ago the former UCLA standout qualified for the U.S. Solheim Cup team as an LPGA rookie.
Yet there she was in Venice, Fla., fielding her fair share of what-are-you-doing-here looks from players she’d once torpedoed past to the professional ranks.
“Honestly, I started freaking out since Hawaii,” she said of keeping her card. “I know that was only a few tournaments into the year, but I felt myself slowly starting to spiral downward like I had in the past.”
Lee missed 12 cuts in 16 starts this season. She has earned $1.2 million in four years on the LPGA but made only $12,054 in 2018. Finding fairways once again became a major concern. Lee ranked 37th in driving accuracy in 2015; this year she’s 160th.
Missing out on the 2017 Solheim Cup triggered a heavy dose of disappointment for Lee, who’d pushed hard to make that team, playing in tournaments she’d plan to skip. It was a packed year to begin with, graduating from UCLA in June. Lee left college golf early but managed to pull off the rare double life of touring pro and sorority sister. Frustrated with her 2017 season, she went into the offseason determined to turn it around.
But with school out of the way and golf her sole focus, Lee made the mistake of piling on the expectations for her first full season as a college grad.
“I think I just kind of drowned myself, I guess, in all this pressure that I built up,” she said. “I just wanted to play well, and the smallest little mistakes kind of steered me in a negative direction. Just slowly kept snowballing and tumbling down.”
Her closest friends on tour – former UCLA teammate Bronte Law, Michelle Wie, Jessica Korda and Austin Ernst – checked in often with encouraging texts.
“The first thing I told her was, ‘Well Alison, you’ve pulled yourself out of every other slump you’ve had,’ ” Ernst said. “ ‘You know exactly what you need to do.’ ”
Lee hired instructor Chris Mayson to help turn things around. She had come to a place where hitting golf shots was a scary proposition. One area Lee remains particularly focused on is self-talk. Even at Q-School, Lee found herself telling Mayson that she was hitting it OK. Mayson wasn’t sure what to make of that and pressed for more information. The conversation led to a lightbulb moment.
“I never say I’m hitting it great,” Lee said. “That just kind of made me realize that even when I’m playing well, I interpret that as ‘Oh I’m just playing decent.’ ”
Ernst, who is at home recovering from mononucleosis, was glued to live scoring from Stage II, where Lee sailed through with a tie for fourth. She stopped playing scared about a month ago and feels fortunate about the timing.
“I talked to her earlier today,” said Ernst on Friday. “She has her confidence back now … it’s back to what it was that rookie year.”
But the journey back isn’t over yet. The LPGA’s new Q-Series, an eight-round marathon with cumulative scores that begins Oct. 24, will demand that Lee stay level-headed through two more weeks of competition. With a young career that has been largely feast or famine, she yearns for such consistency.
In an ideal world, Lee said, she would be able to erase everything that has happened to her as a pro – both good and bad – and return to the player she was at 19, when everything felt new and exciting and she was poised to conquer the world.