SANDWICH, ENGLAND | Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson may have been the main attraction at the start of their second practice round but the punters all knew about Min Woo Lee who was directly in front.
“What a 24 hours he’s had,” said one fellow to his friend. It was, of course, a reference to Lee’s €1,333,330 abrdn Scottish Open win in North Berwick on Sunday and the Open Championship place which went with it, along with the player’s unplanned rush to Sandwich.
Lee himself was struggling to believe what was going on. When, with all the TV and media interviews, he missed the charter plane that whisked all the other Open contenders down to Sandwich, he spent the night in Gullane, Scotland before being dispatched by private plane to Manston, England, on Monday morning. “I’ve never flown private before,” said the wide-eyed Australian.
To think of how things were two and a half years ago when Min Woo, then 20, was starting out on his professional career with a couple of invites to Abu Dhabi and the Saudi International. At that point, he was still having his entry fees paid by his older sister, Minjee, a five-time winner on the LPGA Tour.
It was in Saudi Arabia that GGP had its first interview with Min Woo Lee. Never mind that it was more about Minjee. He had been practising next to Yūsaku Miyazato on the range and, their work over, both players had been happily prepared to sit down and talk about their famous siblings, namely, Ai Miyazato and Minjee Lee.
By the end of the week, though, it was all about Min Woo as he had a closing 63 to finish in fourth place as tales of his massive hitting wafted across the desert.
His new fans – and there were plenty of them – were asking for signed golf balls and, when I noticed what was going on, I put my hand out for a ball and said I was going to give it to his sister when I saw her at the HSBC Championship in Singapore a couple of weeks later.
“She’ll only throw it away,” he said, shyly.
She didn’t even think about it. Instead, she put it in a top pocket in her golf bag and proceeded to tell me all about the kid brother of whom she was so incredibly proud.
Min Woo had started to play golf before she did, only he lost a bit of interest and became more involved in a series of other sports. However, the interval was short-lived as Minjee’s success in golf’s amateur ranks inspired him to pick up his clubs again.
“(Minjee) kept saying she was proud but too much more was out of the question because we were both in tears.” – Min Woo Lee
One thing Minjee so admires about Min Woo is that where she had the advantage of being taken ’round the amateur circuit by her mother, who happens to be a golf coach, he would head off with a friend or friends. “He was so much more independent than I was,” she said. “People at home may still refer to him as Minjee Lee’s brother but he’s not that. He’s Min Woo Lee; he’s paved his own path.”
The two of them are competitive without ever being at war. For instance, back in junior days when Minjee won the 2012 US Girls Amateur, Min Woo made up his mind to match that feat and duly pinned down the US Junior Amateur title in 2016. Going back to that day on the practice range in Saudi Arabia, Min Woo said, humorously, that he had his heart set on becoming “the best player in my family.” At the time, he was lying 970th on the world rankings to Minjee’s third. (Now, he is 61st, having been 240th before his Scottish sortie.)
Everything Minjee was learning, she passed on to Min Woo. When, for instance, he failed to qualify for the Web.com Tour at the end of 2018, she told him that the bad days didn’t matter as long as he was trying his best and putting in the work.
Her advice to him before he started his final round in the abrdn Scottish Open (he was three shots back going into the final round) was that he should “stay patient” and “have fun.”
And what did she say to him after the win?
“She kept saying she was proud but too much more was out of the question because we were both in tears,” said Min Woo.
So far, Min Woo has looked comfortable at Royal St George’s. From playing in the 2017 Amateur Championship on the Kent course, he can remember a fair bit about where he can go and where he can’t go. “Fairways and greens are going to be key,” he said, as the rough appeared to be growing even as he was speaking.
His confidence seems to be doing the same. Endless messages have been pouring in over the last 48 hours with, among them, one from Greg Norman. Having won at Turnberry in 1986, Norman was not seen as a likely winner when, eight years later he teed up at Royal St George’s and came up with the best first round and the best last round to win by five. “Greg,” said Min Woo, “reached out with some kind words and he also gave me a few tips to help get around the course this week.”
You have to suspect that one of the tips at least was linked to Norman’s double bogey start on the first day. “It goes to show,” said the so-called Great White Shark in summing up his experience, “that you should never get discouraged when something doesn’t go as you planned.”
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