A year ago at the Ritz-Carlton in Naples, Florida, reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion Jeongeun Lee6 was muttering to herself on the putting green. While that sort of thing is not unusual, especially for amateur golfers who call themselves every name in the book, “Six” was not berating herself for missing a 5-footer. She was practicing a speech she had to give later that night at the Rolex LPGA Awards dinner.
At the time she knew a few English phrases. “Hello” and “thank you” and “good shot,” maybe a few more. But mostly she smiled and nodded behind the nervous eyes of someone who wanted to tell you how she felt if only you shared a common tongue. She didn’t grow up in Seoul, South Korea, where English can be found on every street corner. Lee6’s family lives in the small agricultural town of Suncheon, in South Jeolla Province, as far away from city life as you can get in a country that size. Imagine trying to learn Korean in Idaho and you get the idea.
After winning the U.S. Women’s Open in Charleston, South Carolina, last spring, her first words were an apology: “I hope that for my next win, I will be able to thank you in English,” she said.
But despite playing a full 2019 LPGA Tour schedule, Lee6 was determined to deliver her Rookie of the Year acceptance speech in English, even if the sounds made no sense to her. She’d practiced for three months prior to that night in Naples, including a few last-minute mumbles on the putting green at Tiburón Golf Club. And when the moment finally came, her delivery was open, humble and emotional. Perfect.
Three days later, at the end of the 2019 LPGA Tour season, a number of media members received something many had never gotten before – a Christmas gift from an athlete, along with a thank-you note for covering the sport. It came from Jeongeun Lee6.
One year later, almost to the day, Six returned to the U.S. for the first time since that week in Florida. She had opened her 2020 season with the two ISPS Handa events in Australia where she didn’t play well. Then, when the pandemic canceled tournaments through the spring and early summer, she went home to South Korea.
Now, she’s back, playing in the Pelican Women’s Championship in Bellaire, Florida, just outside Tampa. Her hair is a little darker and she looks like she hit the gym while she was home. But the big smile and bright disposition are as inviting as ever.
There’s something else that’s different, though. When asked if she had picked up any hobbies during the game’s three-month lockdown, Six didn’t miss a beat. “Yeah, I learned English,” she said flawlessly.
“I didn’t expect it to be that long a stay in Korea. I was just waiting to come back and play on the LPGA Tour.” – Jeongeun Lee6
Imagine learning a foreign language in a year. Also, imagine learning it well enough to go on-camera in a press conference and not only understand a litany of questions, but craft the right answers on the spot. Now, just for fun, imagine that it’s not a Romance language, one with similar Latin roots and the same noun-verb sentence structures you learned as a child. Imagine instead it has an alphabet that looks like a geometry quiz and a tonal syntax that has the consistency of worn brake pads.
How would you do?
Ladies and gentlemen, Jeongeun Lee6:
“I was actually scared of COVID-19 so I wanted to go home” after Australia, she said. “But I don’t have a home in the States, not yet, so I wanted to go home (to South Korea). I didn’t expect it to be that long a stay in Korea. I was just waiting to come back and play on the LPGA Tour.”
It wasn’t like she was sequestered in her house and listened to Rosetta Stone lessons all day. From May through October, she carded five top-10 finishes on the Korean LPGA Tour and finished 11th on the KLPGA money list. Netflix was her English teacher.
“I didn’t do well in Korea,” she said, showing that her high standards haven’t waned. “I wanted to come to the States after winning some tournaments, but I didn’t so I prepared hard and I hope it pays off. I think my swing and my putting were weak this season on the KLPGA so I focused on changing my swing and on my speed putting.
“Watching the (LPGA) from Korea I really wanted to come and play but I didn’t because I was a little scared to come. … My parents were worried about me traveling to different countries and the States. So that’s why I decided not to attend those tournaments. But I didn’t give up the U.S. Open. I really wanted to play as defending champion.
“I really missed playing here. I missed the perfect weather and perfect practice ranges. I’m a little bit nervous coming back to the LPGA Tour because back when I – for the past few months when I played in KLPGA tournaments I wasn’t really satisfied with my game – so hopefully I can play well this week.
“I can play three tournaments now and if I play well, I can compete in the last CME tournament. I really want to play the CME. I’m aiming for that.”
Getting into the CME Group Tour Championship is a tall order under the best of conditions. To do it in only three starts is almost impossible. But, then, so is learning a new language in less than 12 months. So, don’t count Six out.
Top photo: Donald Miralle, Getty Images
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