Min Woo Lee has the game to drive him to the top of golf’s precipice. But the West Australian’s rookie pro year showed he still has plenty to learn about his craft.
Siblings are competitive.
Be it a night in playing board games, attempting to get the front seat in a parent’s car or fighting over the last morsels of a family dinner.
For the Lee family however, the competition between Min Woo and sister, Minjee, is out in the open for all to see.
Min Woo, the younger Lee sibling by two years, has aspirations to be the best golfer on the planet, however the 21-year-old isn’t even the best golfer in his family yet, lying 126 places behind Minjee in the respective men’s and women’s world rankings.
Although Min Woo suggests the pair, the only sibling winners of US Junior Amateur crowns, don’t have quite the rivalry one would suspect when it comes to their golf games, it is hard to imagine the want to outdo each other on the course hasn’t led to the rapid development of both Lee children’s burgeoning careers.
“We are not the most competitive,” Lee says of the siblings’ relationship. “It is tough out here on the men’s Tour, so whatever finish, a high finish, is still respectable and pretty good.”
Lee has long been earmarked as a player to watch from an Australian and worldwide standpoint after a decorated amateur career, while also possessing a friendly, outgoing demeanour and a clear love for the spotlight.
His debut year as a professional in 2019 highlighting once again why so many have such a high opinion of his potential. At the 2019 Australian Open, former Tour pro turned commentator Grant Dodd was moved to claim on Twitter: “If he doesn’t win an Australian Open at least once I’ll eat a box of Titleists.”
Lee took the plunge into the play-for-pay ranks without any significant status on any major Tour, but quickly made his mark on the European Tour. A fourth place at the Saudi International, won by Dustin Johnson, earned him a place at the following event, the Vic Open.
However, with the big lights and money of the PGA Tour top of his priority list, Min Woo eschewed his place at 13th Beach – where he had previously managed a top-10 finish as an amateur in 2017 – to accept a place on the Korn Ferry Tour in Panama. Which was a decision he now admits was a mistake.
“I think that was a regret of mine last year because I went to the Korn Ferry Tour to play Panama and I got a free start from coming top-10 at another tournament to get into Vic Open,” Min Woo said.
RIGHT: After a tough lesson in 2019, Min Woo will return to Europe with high hopes. PHOTO: Getty Images.
Missing the cut in Panama, Lee returned home to Perth for the now defunct World Super 6 Perth, where he recorded another top-five finish to get yet another European Tour start in Oman the following week.
The Royal Fremantle Golf Club member performed consistently enough throughout the next few months, off the back of sponsor’s exemptions, to believe he had done enough to secure full European Tour playing rights for 2020 based on previous Race to Dubai standings.
After being widely celebrated for having earnt a place on one of the world’s biggest Tours through his good play, reality set in for Lee in late October when he missed a full card by just two spots.
“I missed out on a full card on the European Tour by two spots, probably only a couple of shots over the whole year,” Lee posted to Instagram at the time.
“I thought I had my Tour card wrapped up earlier in the year but I was wrong, which sucks. But lesson learnt. Give it your best and every shot does indeed count.”
“I think the sky’s the limit for him. Just looks like he’s got all the tools. And he’s young, so I think it would be exciting to be Min Woo Lee.” – Stewart Cink
The harsh lesson still smarts Lee, who was faced with partial status and the prospect of 11th hour call-ups into tournaments, whilst also relying on the generosity of sponsors to give him a place to hopefully perform well and earn a Tour card for 2021, before his first professional win at the European Tour's Vic Open in February.
“I think it is a big advantage playing the courses that you have before. I’m probably going to play some tournaments (on courses) that are brand new to me, but just got so much knowledge last year and I learnt a lot, so hopefully it is a big step forward,” Lee said of his 2019 experience in December last year looking towards 2020.
“I could look at every tournament and every hole, but everything happens for a reason. It is probably good for me because I felt like I didn’t really play that good over the past six or so months. So I think it was just a bit of a kick in the teeth, so hopefully I can get some motivation from that.”
It didn't take long for Lee to display his renewed motivation. In just his third start of 2020, Min Woo joined Minjee (2014 & 2018) in claiming his first Tour win at the Vic Open at 13th Beach, earning the younger sibling "bragging rights" for the time being after his older sister finished T6 and celerated with him on the 18th green.
The victory, which came by two shots over Kiwi Ryan Fox after firing a final round 68 having slept on the third round lead, gave Lee a two-year European Tour exemption and greatly elevated his world ranking. Lee however, like all other professional tournament players, is now in a temporary career hiatus as the world's second-largest circuit is suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Lee’s ability to take positives from what was unquestionably an agonising introduction to the world of professional golf is yet another reason to believe he has the potential to become one of the best players of our current crop, his game similarly progressing and impressing major champions.
“He’s got a pretty swing, but it was good to see him kind of compose himself. He hung in there for a few holes after his poor start and then he composed himself and got on a bit of a roll there nicely,” Adam Scott said of Lee after playing the first round together at RACV Royal Pines Resort. “That’s good qualities to see out there because, like I said, it was easy for it to really get away from you today if you just were a little bit off.”
“That was impressive to see a young player tidy himself up and move in the right direction,” added Scott’s fellow major winner, and third member of their group, Stewart Cink.
“But it was no surprise, I could see from the first shot that the guy’s got an amazing swing and plenty of power. I think the sky’s the limit for him. Just looks like he’s got all the tools. And he’s young, so I think it would be exciting to be Min Woo Lee.”
The tools Cink mentions are perhaps reason to get most excited about the prospects of the younger Lee, who says his older sister regularly sends messages of support during tournaments, particularly when noticing his head drop.
Lee ended the 2019 European Tour season as its longest driver, averaging 320 yards (292 metres) – despite being listed at a generous six feet on his Korn Ferry Tour profile and weighing less than 80 kilograms – while his ball flight control and tidy short game suggest he is far more than simply a basher.
Lee possesses great imagination, particularly evident when producing his incredibly penetrating-flighted stinger and his putting is steady, ranking in the top-40 for both putts per green in regulation and average putts per round on the European Tour in 2019. Both qualities have been on full display during his high finishes since turning professional.
“I think it was just a bit of a kick in the teeth, so hopefully I can get some motivation from that.” – Min Woo Lee
The 21-year-old also displayed an ever increasing maturity when analysing his game and improving temperament, something that would surprise few who have watched Minjee climb into the top-10 in the world rankings of the ladies game with a stoic disposition and extremely well-managed golf game.
“I’m still learning. The thing about golf is the one week where you don’t make mistakes, you’re probably going to be up there in the lead or going to win,” Lee said. “So I’m still looking for that. But I’m still learning a lot about myself. So yeah, just hopefully I can learn from everything I do every week.
“I’m learning about myself, too. I’m a pretty fiery player, but I’m trying to minimise that a little bit. It’s never bad to just, you know, spit it a little bit and, you know, regroup. It was worse a couple years ago. What you see now is better.”
As Lee continues to improve in every facet of the game, he has embraced his role as one of this country’s rising stars, signing autographs for young fans long after his final putt drops each day and encouraging his social media followers to ask questions of him during flights around the world. He also enjoys the comradery of his fellow young professionals in Europe such as Lucas Herbert and Jake McLeod, with Zach Murray another up-and-coming Aussie headed to the second-biggest circuit in men’s golf in 2020.
“It’s awesome, we are all good mates and we always want each other to do well, it is a tough Tour out there, everyone is trying to fight for something, so it is pretty awesome to see all the young guys,” Lee said. “And it’s awesome to be the up-and-coming, because there is kids younger than us that want to be in our position and we have to do our best to keep that up and hopefully we win a few tournaments and hopefully get a bigger younger audience to play golf.”