Minjee Lee poised to become unique Kingsmill champion

Minjee Lee played last five holes in 6-under Sunday

JAMES CITY — Minjee Lee will break the mold of Kingsmill Championship winners Monday. The only mystery is into how many pieces.

When darkness fell Sunday upon the soggy River Course, Lee led fellow LPGA Tour rookie Alison Lee, no relation, by four strokes. Minjee Lee had just hit her approach at the 16th hole onto the fringe. Alison Lee was preparing to tee off at the par-5 15th, where moments earlier Minjee Lee eagled to put a chokehold on her first professional victory.

Following a weather delay of two-plus hours, Minjee Lee blitzed Kingsmill's back nine like no other Sunday contender ever has in the 11 LPGA tournaments here. Her eagle from 10 feet, after a perfect 4-iron approach, put her at 7-under-par for the round, 6-under for her last five holes.

The lowest final round by a Kingsmill champion was Hall of Famer Se Ri Pak's 6-under 65 in 2004, which gave her a two-shot victory over Juli Inkster and Lorena Ochoa. Barring an overnight case of the yips and/or stage fright, Lee certainly could better Pak's mark once play resumes at 7 a.m.

Two more birdies Monday would give Minjee Lee a closing 62, matching Jiyai Shin's tournament record, set in 2012's opening round. Three more would give her a 19-under total, equaling Annika Sorenstam's event standard from 2008.

Minjee Lee turns 19 in less than two weeks and has never been this close to a pro breakthrough. So implosion is conceivable — remember Alison Lee's 4-putt double-bogey at No. 17 Saturday? — though highly unlikely.

Minjee or 20-year-old Alison Lee would be Kingsmill's first rookie, and youngest, champion. Grace Park was 24 years and two months when she won the inaugural LPGA event here in 2003.

Moreover, either would be Kingsmill's lowest-ranked champ. Dating to the 2006 debut of the Rolex World Rankings, no one below No. 25 has won on this Pete Dye track. Minjee Lee is No. 59, Alison Lee No. 100.

Four top-35 players — Suzann Pettersen, rookie Hyo Joo Kim, Paula Creamer and So Yeon Ryu — are among those tied for third, but they are six back.

Golf Channel coverage dictated absurdly late tee times Sunday — the leaders began play at 3:05 p.m. — and left little room for weather intervention. The Monday finish inconveniences scores, none more than the Lees, both of whom were scheduled to compete in a U.S. Women's Open qualifier Monday at Hermitage Country Club near Richmond.

A Kingsmill victory would earn either an automatic Open invitation, but the loser could well be denied an opportunity to qualify. That would especially sting Alison Lee, a Californian who tied for 26th at the 2009 Open as a 14-year-old.

"I guess I can try and speak to them and ask maybe if I can try qualifying at a different site," Lee said of the governing U.S. Golf Association. "I know they have one in California on Tuesday, and I should be back home by then. Who knows if the field is full? We'll see."

Kingsmill has been here before, but those Monday finishes came when playoffs bled into darkness, not with four groups still left on the course.

In 2012, after a two-year sabbatical, the LPGA returned to Kingsmill and produced a playoff that toggled between extraordinary and maddening. Deadlocked at 16-under par after 72 holes, Creamer and Shin returned to the 18th tee for a sudden-death playoff. And returned and returned and returned …

Eight times they played the par-4 with the oversized, undulating green. Eight times, each made par.

Creamer nearly holed a 35-footer and almost chipped in. Shin missed from 8 feet, Creamer from 15. Both saved par from a greenside bunker.

Finally, with the players back on the tee for a ninth attempt and squinting to see the fairway, sanity prevailed. Thirteen-plus hours later, at 9 a.m. Monday, they resumed, Shin prevailing on the morning's first hole, the par-4 16th, when Creamer three-putted from 30 feet.

It was the longest two-player OT in LPGA history.

In 1989, rain twice delayed final-round play in the PGA Tour's late, occasionally great Anheuser-Busch Classic. Mike Donald, Tim Simpson and Hal Sutton tied at the same 16-under aggregate, and when three playoff holes eliminated only Sutton, darkness forced Donald and Simpson back to the River Course the following day.

As in 2012, one hole was all it took, Donald birdieing No. 16 for the only victory of his career — Donald came agonizingly close to a major championship the next year, losing a Monday, 19-hole U.S. Open playoff to Hale Irwin.

This Monday finish figures to be far less dramatic, Minjee Lee coasting to victory with few witnesses.

"I didn't do anything crazy," she said of her back-nine binge Sunday. "My putts just seemed to fall."

Only crazy precludes her celebrating Monday morning.

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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