CHASKA, MINNESOTA | After winning the U.S. Women’s Open, Jeongeun Lee6 apologized for not being able to speak English. In the happiest moment of her young life – a moment that not only altered her career but provided a measure of stability for her family; a moment that left both Six and her manager and translator Jennifer Kim in tears – the 23-year-old South Korean promised to work on her foreign language skills so she could speak to a Western audience after her next victory.
The fact that she came within a couple of back-nine putts from making the ShopRite LPGA Classic in New Jersey her next win a week after the Open might have forced her to break that vow. But Six was ready by the time she arrived at this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. Her first question was about Hazeltine National. In flawless, albeit slow English, Six said, “The course setup is amazing. And the KPMG Championship really seems like a PGA tournament.”
The line was obviously memorized and she beamed like a kid after reciting it. Just another in a series of endearing moments that Six has provided in her short tenure in the States.
“I know that our ratings at the ShopRite were through the roof the week after a lot of attention was brought to Asian players on the LPGA Tour,” Golf Channel analyst Jerry Foltz said. “(Six) was trying to beat Lexi and the fans at Seaview (Hotel in New Jersey) were rooting for (Six) and cheering for her more than I’ve ever seen American fans cheer for an Asian player who wasn’t a superstar.
“I think it was a tipping point with all the controversy created the previous week.”
The controversy in question stemmed from instructor Hank Haney’s idiotic comments on PGA Tour Radio when he dismissively predicted “a Korean” would win the U.S. Women’s Open. Then Haney doubled down on stupid by saying he couldn’t name six LPGA players but immediately backtracked and said that maybe he could if he got credit for all the players named “Lee.”
“But to me, it’s just that ability to pull off a good solid shot down the stretch when it counts. Not everybody has that.” – Kay Cockerill of Golf Channel
Whether or not Foltz’s assessment is correct that the Haney incident was a tipping point, the fact is, more people than ever know Six’s story, one of the most inspiring in the game. People know, for example, that Six’s father, a truck driver, was paralyzed in a crash when Six was just 4 years old. They know that Six didn’t take up the game until she was 16, in part because she helped care for her dad. And they know that she was driven to succeed to support her family. Some know that she got the numeral because Jeongeun Lee is a common name in Korea and she was the sixth player with that name to join the Korean LPGA Tour. And they know that she embraced the number when she joined the LPGA as a way to separate herself.
What they might not know yet is what an old soul we have in a young major champion.
“To me it seems she’s got a bit of that old-school feel to her,” Golf Channel’s Kay Cockerill said of Six. “She reminds me a bit of like Meg Mallon, kind of has a nice classic golf swing. There’s nothing where you would say, ‘Wow, did you see that high cut shot she hit or the way she hit it up over that tree?’ But she has a beautiful short game. We saw that on display when she was winning the Women’s Open. She obviously has a great demeanor, which carries her through pressure situations. But to me, it’s just that ability to pull off a good solid shot down the stretch when it counts. Not everybody has that.”
The fortitude to execute when it matters most, to pull off the crucial shot at the opportune time, to embrace the pressure of the biggest moments and make them yours: that is Six’s greatest gift.
“When you think about her upbringing and the tragedy with her father, with the truck crash, and then how she had to fund her family and work for them, she’s basically doing this with the purpose of looking out for her family,” said Karen Stupples, the past Women’s British Open champion and current Golf Channel commentator. “I really do believe that gives a player a different perspective to their work and to the game.
“A good example of that, I think, happened at ShopRite,” Stupples said. “On the day before the tournament started, she was on the practice putting green for at least two hours. It may have been closer to three hours. Bearing in mind that she had just won the U.S. Women’s Open. You would have thought that she could give herself just a little break. No, she doesn’t give herself any breaks. There’s no one here pushing her behind the scenes, making her stand out there and do that. She’s doing it because she has a bigger drive, a bigger purpose. When it gets hard to stand out there and practice like that, the bigger picture in the back of her mind is that this is for everybody back home. This is for my family. So it gives her that little bit of extra drive to stand out there when others may have said, ‘You know what, I might just take a little bit of time off. I might just go and enjoy myself and maybe 30 minutes or an hour is good enough to practice.’ No, she was out there for longer than two hours doing the work.”
Her family watched her win the U.S. Women’s Open in Korea. According to Six, “They really didn’t know how to react because they didn’t think winning was a possibility and we especially didn’t expect to win this quickly. They felt pretty amazed and proud of me since I won a major championship.”
They shouldn’t be surprised when she wins the next one. As intangibles go, the guts and grit of the girl named Six will likely go a long way in this game.
Jeongeun Lee6 lines up a putt at the ShopRite LPGA Classic. Photo: Hunter Martin, Getty Images
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