Rookie Minjee Lee captures LPGA Kingsmill Championship

Dave Fairbank
Contact Reporterdfairbank@dailypress.com
Australian rookie is youngest #KingsmillLPGA winner, just shy of 19

JAMES CITY — LPGA Tour rookie Minjee Lee is a teenager with immense promise — former No. 1-ranked amateur in the world, top-30 finishes in three major tournaments last year.

She cashed a handful of checks this season, but learned that competing and contending as a professional is far more taxing than as an amateur, even as she watched fellow rookies win tournaments and hoist trophies.

Lee came to Kingsmill figuring simply to add to her professional reservoir. Four days and 45 minutes later, she left as a champion.

Two weeks shy of her 19th birthday, the Aussie native improbably put together the best week of golf in her life and bested a top-shelf field at the $1.3 million Kingsmill Championship to become the event's youngest winner.

"I mean, I've had a pretty good start to the season, but I didn't really see this coming," Lee said after Monday morning's brief stroll. "I definitely didn't expect anything coming into this week. I just wanted to have a really good week. I was actually trying to get ready to play the (U.S. Open) qualifier, but I don't have to any more."

Indeed, she doesn't. After becoming the third rookie to win on Tour in a season just one-third complete, Lee is qualified for the U.S. Open, and has many other doors open to her, as well.

"Just because I won in my rookie season, I feel like I could probably do it again," said Lee, who earned $195,0000. "Just kind of gives me confidence that I can play and win out here. So just a great confidence booster."

After registering just one round in the 60s all year, Lee was one of only two players to card four rounds in the 60s (68-67-69-65), along with runner-up So Yeon Ryu.

Lee completed a 6-under 65 for a total of 15-under 269 and a two-stroke win over Ryu, who earned $118,120. Fellow rookie Alison Lee, no relation, finished third at 12-under 272 after her best performance as a professional. Third-round leader Perrine Delacour was fourth after a final-round 71 left her at 10-under 273, also her best performance on Tour.

"This has been a really interesting week, playing on Sunday in the final group and having to come in and finish out on Monday," said Alison Lee, a native Californian who led after two rounds and earned $85,688. "But it's a new learning experience every week. Even though I didn't come out on top this week, I really learned a lot. I'll take it to every tournament I go and remember it.

"Yeah, and I'm really happy for Minjee. (She) and I go way back. We've had like a little rivalry since we were young. So proud of her. She's a great player."

Minjee Lee already had done the heavy lifting by the time she and seven others returned to Kingsmill's River Course early Monday morning to complete a final round delayed by rain and halted by darkness.

She carried a 4-shot lead into Monday, courtesy of a remarkable stretch Sunday in which she was 7-under-par over nine holes to reach 16-under for the tournament. She began Monday morning with a 3-putt bogey from the fringe at No. 16, that didn't bother her in the least.

"The goal," she said, "was to make, well, the two-and-a-half holes I had left, to make pars. Wasn't so bad."

Alison Lee birdied the par-5 15th hole, a 2-shot swing that trimmed Minjee Lee's lead to two. Ryu, a 24-year-old Korean who began Monday at 10-under, birdied Nos. 15, 16 and 17 to reach 13-under. Neither was able to draw closer, as Alison Lee again mis-read the green on a potential birdie putt at 17 and had a sloppy bogey at 18 to finish.

Meanwhile, Minjee Lee played safely on the last two holes, with solid two-putt pars and waited for the two groups behind her to finish.

She joined Koreans Sei Young Kim and Hyo Joo Kim as the other Tour rookies to win tournaments this year. Sei Young Kim has won twice.

Both Minjee and Alison Lee, coincidentally co-medalists at LPGA Q School last December, spoke about the challenges of professional golf: the level of competition and the frequency of tournaments, compared to the amateur schedule.

"Mentally, it's like a battlefield out here," Minjee Lee said. "So that was quite hard for me to adjust the first couple months. I think, physically, you have to work out a little bit more. Stamina, you have to have a bit more stamina to get through those weeks. Yeah, it is a little bit different, but I think it just takes a little time to get adjusted to."

She has proven to be a quick study.

Fairbank can be reached by phone at 757-247-4637.

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