Aubergine

Almost quitting to winning, golfer Danny Lee steadily rises up world rankings

August 12, 2015
Danny Lee poses with the trophy after winning the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament at Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Sunday, July 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

Danny Lee poses with the trophy after winning the Greenbrier Classic golf tournament at Greenbrier Resort in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., Sunday, July 5, 2015. (AP Photo/Chris Tilley)

By Brian Han

Danny Lee is playing the best golf of his professional career and the numbers he’s putting up support his case.

The South Korean-born New Zealander won his first career PGA Tour event in 2015. His follow-up performances have also displayed a newfound consistency as witnessed by six top-10s. He’s made over $3.2 million this season and is 10th in the FedEx Cup standings, which puts him ahead of Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler.

He’s making sure to revel in it all.

“I love being out here every week,” he told the Korea Times. “If I could play every week, I would. (I’m about to play) my 30th event this year, I don’t really feel tired physically or mentally. I just love to goof around with other players and compete. Everyday I’m living in a dream.”

Lee doesn’t come off as a fiery competitor in interviews. In fact he’s incredibly laid back and likes to keep the mood light whenever possible. He almost has to fight himself to stop from smiling or cracking a joke.

What his demeanor and recent success do not show is that the 25-year-old’s journey up to this point has been nothing short of a battle.

Lee generated a lot of hype before he turned professional in 2009.

He established himself as the top-ranked amateur in the world. In 2008, he became the youngest player to win the U.S. Amateur Championship at the time — a record that had been held previously by Tiger Woods. The following year he won the Johnnie Walker Classic as an amateur, which also made him the youngest winner ever on the European Tour.

Both the public’s and his own expectations of himself were understandably high, so when Lee had trouble achieving the same level of consistent play once he turned pro, it ate away at him. Losing his PGA Tour card in 2012 brought him to a breaking point.

Danny Lee, from New Zealand, hits from the fairway on the 10th hole during the first round of the Bridgestone Invitational golf tournament at Firestone Country Club, Thursday, Aug. 6, 2015, in Akron, Ohio. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak)

Danny Lee has made over $3.2 million this season and is 10th in the FedEx Cup standings, which puts him ahead of Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler. (AP)

“I wanted to stop playing, but back then my parents gave me courage,” he said. “I was going through a swing change, and I just played horrible that year. I didn’t know how to hit a golf ball because there were so many things, so many thoughts and things in my head, and I was putting it poorly as well.”

Lee went through a handful of swing coaches, tried new mental approaches, changed his grip to deal with tendonitis and it all became a bit too much to handle. The only thing he was sure of at the time was that he had the unwavering support of his parents.

“I wouldn’t be in this position without their guidance back then,” he said.

Even South Korean godfather of golf K.J. Choi noticed Lee’s struggles and offered a slice of wisdom.

“K.J. looks after younger Korean players, once I got out on tour, I got to meet him,” Lee said. “He told me that if there is a bad year to not feel down, keep playing.”

He took the words to heart and bounced back the following year by earning his PGA Tour card following strong play on the Web.com tour.

“After six years of hard work… I have proven that I can win out on tour,” he said.

Though Lee identifies as a New Zealander, he is very much in touch with his Korean roots and that is exactly what is driving him to succeed in 2015.

“The reason I played so many events was I really wanted to make it into the Presidents Cup this year,” he said. “It’s back in Korea. I was born there. I speak Korean. My grandparents and parents are Korean and most of my family are in Korea.”

For the first time ever the Presidents Cup will be held in South Korea at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea in Incheon, which will feature many of the world’s best players.

But in order to qualify for the international team, Lee has to be in the world’s top-10 ranking among non-U.S. and non-European players by season’s end.

As it turns out, he is currently 10th in the Presidents Cup standings for the international team, which means if he maintains his current level of play, he will earn his rightful spot on the team come October. To put things into perspective, Lee has finished in the top-6 three times in the four events following his win at the Greenbrier Classic.

If he does succeed, it would make him both the fourth Korean-born player and the fourth New Zealander to play on the international team.

But what brought him to New Zealand in the first place away from home and family?

“We left Korea at age 11,” he recalled. “My dad was sick at that time with cancer, he was really sick and had five surgeries. After the last operation the doctor thought he wouldn’t make it. He has a strong body and a strong soul. He wanted to spend life in a peaceful place so we moved to New Zealand. Once we were there, I started playing more and more golf.”

The Korean community was small at the time and he remembers there only being “maybe 50 to 60 Korean people” including “one Korean restaurant.”

Now the thought of a South Korean from New Zealand doesn’t sound as foreign as it once might have as illustrated by both Lee and one of the world’s best female golfers, 18-year-old Lydia Ko.

But the seven-year age gap between the two players means they didn’t cross paths according to Lee.

Ko recently told the Korea Times that she wants to go down as “the player that had the most fun” and Lee echoes that sentiment with his light-hearted attitude mixed with a competitive edge.

With the ups and downs so far in his career, the 25-year-old golfer already has a firm grasp on the difficulties and gratifications that come with being a professional athlete. He hopes to see more and more competitors that share his background.

“There are so many talented golfers in Korea and New Zealand, it’s just so hard to come over all the way here to America and play,” he said. “Making it to the PGA Tour is not an easy thing to do, and I just wish that a lot more New Zealand or Korean younger golfers come out here and play on the PGA Tour. It would be pretty nice. That’s all I can say.”

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