With mom at her side, Minjee Lee closes Kingsmill with veteran's poise

Lee (@minjeegolf) finished two shots ahead of So Yeon Ryu

JAMES CITY — Minjee Lee strolled down the 16th fairway at 6:50 Monday morning, fueled by rice and soup — thanks, Mom — and cushioned by a 4-shot lead in the Kingsmill Championship. All that separated her from a first LPGA Tour victory was two-plus holes.

Lee chatted up her new caddie, Jeremy Young, retrieved her phone and earbuds from her golf bag, and found some soothing music. If this Australian teenager was unnerved by the moment, she sure wasn't showing it.

"My daughter has always been calm," said Clara Lee, an accomplished golfer during her youth in South Korea.

Clara, not so much, and when officials blew an air horn at 7 a.m. to commence play, and Lee surveyed a 15-foot, downhill putt from the fringe, Clara looked away. Good thing.

Lee badly misread the break and speed, the ball rolling about 5 feet past the cup. She missed the comeback, and the bogey brought uncertainty to what overnight — a two-hour rain delay Sunday forced the bleary-eyed Monday finish — appeared inevitable.

Clara was unfazed.

"I trust my daughter can do it," she said.

And that she did, parring the last two holes to complete a final-round of 6-under-par 65, her 15-under total two shots clear of So Yeon Ryu and three better than fellow rookie and good friend Alison Lee.

Minjee Lee turns 19 later this month, but she closed like a sage veteran. She avoided a sucker pin on the back, right of the par-3 17th green, hitting a 6-iron to about 30 feet left of the flag. She smoked a driver on the par-4 18th, left an easy wedge below the hole and, at 7:34 a.m., pumped her right fist as her final putt fell.

Less than half-an-hour later, she was posing with the oversized winner's check of $195,000 and acing the thank you speech that she told agent Kevin Hopkins — he left his New York base shortly after midnight and drove south to witness his client's victory — was the most nerve-wracking moment of the tournament.

Hopkins also represents Alison Lee, and after Monday's festivities, the two rookies lunched together. Though not related — Alison Lee was born and raised in California — they are natural friends from the junior circuit, and they were co-medalists at last year's LPGA Tour qualifying tournament.

And if Kingsmill's results are any kind of precursor, they are very much part of the Tour's future.

"I know we're rookies," Minjee Lee said, "but I feel like so many rookies are doing so well. I think we kind of found that kind of fire in us to play well. I think we both want to do really well because so many rookies are winning and doing so well out here."

Indeed, newcomers have claimed four of the LPGA's 12 events this year. Sei Young Kim won twice, Hyo Joo Kim once before Minjee Lee joined the club.

Ryu knows the feeling. She won the 2011 U.S. Women's Open as a member of the Korean LPGA and a year later added the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic a LPGA Tour rookie.

"She's young, but she still looks like mature enough to me," Ryu said of Minjee Lee. "I don't really think I need to (give) advice to her. But (the) important thing is we are always on the road, so we have to find something fun other (than) just keep playing golf and golf."

Clara Lee coaches, and used to caddie for, her daughter, the world's top-ranked amateur last season. Perhaps most important, she's a comforting presence, a touch of home in a nomadic profession, preparing Minjee's favorite meals and, oftentimes, just listening.

"Definitely I'm very lucky to have her out here," Lee said. "Just having someone out here I think is a big support. … It's very nice to have her telling me that I'm good enough and I can win out here. Yeah, it's nice. … My dad and my brothers are home — they tell me that, too, but it's different."

The Lees bunked at Kingsmill with hosts Mark and Terri Osborne, and Terri, in Minjee's gallery for most of the tournament, was struck by the mother-daughter bond. Monday morning, Terri awoke to the smell of Clara's soup-and-rice breakfast.

"I'm still Asian," Minjee said with a smile, "even though I'm Australian."

She's also the seventh player to win a LPGA event before her 19th birthday. Marlene Hagge was the first, in 1952, but the others are recent: Morgan Pressel, Paula Creamer, Jessica Korda, Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko.

Each of those five won subsequent tournaments, and Ko is the world's top-ranked player, Thompson No. 10. Monday's victory vaulted Lee from 59th to 19th.

"She's (a) really long hitter," Ryu said. "She is really (a) great ball striker. When I was playing with her, she was a bit struggling with her putting, but looks like she was on fire (this week) , so I don't think she really needs to worry about anything."

David Teel can be reached at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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