COLUMBUS, Ohio – Danny Lee caused quite a stir even before joining the professional ranks.
It was three years ago when he became the youngest champion in the history of the U.S. Amateur. He was 18 years, one month old when he won the event – even younger than Tiger Woods when he was the U.S. Amateur champ. (Lee’s mark has since been surpassed.)
If that didn’t signal a potential rise to stardom, then his victory at the Johnnie Walker Classic just six months later did. That made him the youngest winner in European Tour history and just the second amateur to win on that tour (the other being Pablo Martin).
After the 2009 Masters, Lee turned professional, but his star suddenly stopped rising. Though he earned his way into 11 PGA Tour events via sponsor exemptions and his U.S. Amateur title, Lee failed to make enough money to earn his full card for the following year.
He then struggled through much of the 2010 season, and his once-promising career seemed to be stalled. But this year, as a member of the Nationwide Tour, Lee is again beginning to show flashes of a champion.
“I have struggled for a couple of years,” said Lee during the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational. “Not struggled but just trying to improve. I wasn’t doing my best.”
So far in 2011, Lee has been one of the better players on the Nationwide Tour. He entered this week’s Utah Championship at No. 24 on the money list and is in good position to improve on that. He is tied for fifth and trails the leaders by five strokes after a solid 65 on Saturday.
Lee said he is still knocking off some rust after missing a month of action with a sprained left thumb. He said he is struggling most with is driver but is slowly getting back to where he was before the injury.
He had three straight top-10 finishes in Nationwide events and was vaulting up the money list before the thumb issue. Lee attributes his improvement to a new coach as well as a more mature approach to the game.
He’s 21 years old now and understands better than ever what it takes to succeed as a professional golfer.
“Never give up when you hit an awful tee shot or awful second shot. Anything can happen in golf,” he said. “I never actually knew that every shot counts.
“I turned pro at such a young age … if I go out there and hit a few bad shots and I’m off the leaderboard, I was kind of playing around and didn’t try my best. That was kind of foolish of me.
“I am very pleased with how I am playing.”
Lee also has some more stability with his family. Born in South Korea and raised in New Zealand, Lee now makes his home in Dallas, Texas, with his family. Having them on the same continent where he’s playing, said Lee, has been a bonus. Now, his support system is close by, and he can go home anytime he wants.
Naturally, Lee hopes all of his work is leading to a spot on the PGA Tour next season. If he finishes in the top 25 on the Nationwide Tour money list, he’ll do just that. If not, there’s always Q School.
Lee, however, isn’t thinking that far ahead. The Nationwide Tour still has 12 events left on its schedule, and Lee’s focus is finishing the season strong.
“I love playing in USA right now,” Lee said. “I’m trying to focus on the Nationwide Tour for a couple months, so we’ll see how it goes.”
– Chuck Curti