LPGA rookie Alison Lee juggles golf and books with finesse

April 20, 2015
Alison Lee tied the course record 9-under 63 during the Kia Classic at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad, Calif. (Courtesy of Kyumin Shim)

Alison Lee hits an approach shot during the Kia Classic at the Park Hyatt Aviara Resort in Carlsbad, Calif. (Courtesy of Kyumin Shim)

By Brian Han

LPGA Tour rookie and UCLA undergrad Alison Lee is deceptively competitive.

During casual conversation, the 20-year-old golfer is down to earth. Her hobbies are what you would expect from a college student — or as she puts it: “I love shopping, internet stuff and Netflix.”

She’s almost too laid back for someone who’s still learning to balance academics and a professional sports career after co-medaling at the LPGA’s Q-School in December. Maybe it has something to do with all that California sun.

“The thing I admire the most [about Alison] is her attitude, which is difficult to explain,” UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth said. “She cares, but she doesn’t. She wants to win, and wants the trophy, but that drive is masked behind an almost careless attitude towards the game. It is like she has the perfect mentality.”

It’s almost like watching a San Antonio Spurs game.

In just her third LPGA event, she showed a flash of brilliance in the third round of the JTBC Founders Cup where she tied the course record with a 9-under 63, thrusting her name into the spotlight.

It looked like a walk in the park, and inevitably the performance turned heads.

The following week, she finished in fourth place at the Kia Classic right in between world No. 1 Lydia Ko and world No. 2 Park Inbee.

Her strong play earned her a spot in 2015′s first major, the ANA Inspiration. All the subtle clues pointing toward her struggles and concerns to fit in on tour had mostly vanished by the time the event came around.

Alison Lee's first outing with plastic clubs at Whittier Narrows Golf Course in Rosemead, Calif. (Courtesy of Alison Lee)

Alison Lee’s first outing with plastic clubs at Whittier Narrows Golf Course in Rosemead, Calif. (Courtesy of Alison Lee)

“Players and people I’ve never met before who I know, but I had no idea that they knew me are coming up to me and being so supportive,” Lee said. “I’m getting into the flow. I’m not as nervous as before now that I’ve had a couple good events.”

That’s especially good news because she decided to take the spring quarter off to play a full schedule, which translates to lots of travelling and what would have been missed classes.

The decision gives her an opportunity to fully immerse herself in the life of a touring professional.

Even so, she seems to not really mind the stress that would have come along with juggling two different lifestyles.

“I’ve been going back and forth between school and golf ever since I was little so it would have been harder for me to adapt to being a professional without school,” Lee said.

It’s difficult to see the logic at first, but academia is almost therapeutic for her.

“As a rookie you don’t want all the competition to consume you,” she said. “That’s why I’m glad I have school. It’s an escape from the professional life. Sure it’s been tough, but I really enjoy the classes, my friends and my experiences. It’s worth it.”

Her former coach understands the conflict, but points out that Lee needs some time to adjust before tapping into all her potential.

“It is tough to be a normal 20-year-old when you are not a normal 20-year-old,” Forsyth said. “She will find balance in time when she gets comfortable in her job as a professional athlete. I believe 100 percent that Alison Lee has what it takes to be a multi-event winner and potentially a Major winner on tour. She will be a star out there.”

Lee may hold these aspirations deep down, but so do all her competitors, so it’s probably better for everyone to let their games do the talking.

Forsyth has been the head coach at UCLA for 14 years now, has won two NCAA titles and was inducted into the NGCA Coaches Hall of Fame. Many of her former players have gone on to play in the LPGA including 2014 Women’s British Open champion Mo Martin.

(Courtesy of Kyumin Shim)

(Courtesy of Kyumin Shim)

At this point, she knows what separates the good players from the great ones.

“Most of the elite players I have coached who go on to make it on tour have two things that separate them,” Forsyth said. “First is a great head for the game. In other words, they are mentally tough and have a lot of belief in their abilities. … The second thing is that they have a support system in place that is solid. They have some financial stability that enables them to play without having to worry too much about making a cut every week. This can be from sponsors or family. It helps a lot to have that stress removed.”

It’s clear that Lee has the physical and psychological aspects of the game down. As for Forsyth’s second criterion, support from her family to pursue a career in golf has played a big role in her success.

Lee’s father John, a formerly avid golfer, introduced his daughter to the sport at the age of three. He recognized her aptitude for the game very early on and made sure to give her the best opportunity to succeed.

“Although he loves the game of golf, he sacrificed it and supported me instead when I was about seven or eight,” Lee recalled. “He stopped playing golf and stopped spending money on himself to focus more on me. He built my game and my career.”

Both of her parents immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea so naturally, she was exposed to two different cultures.

“I’m Korean, I come from a Korean family, so I understand the culture and it’s definitely helped me succeed,” she said. “The attitude is about being very hardworking and goal oriented so when something needs to get accomplished, that’s the focus and nothing else.”

Naturally, as someone who grew up in the states her personality is more of a hybrid between the two.

“I’m a bit more Americanized so it’s different,” she said. “Even though I want to accomplish a lot in golf, I still want to achieve things outside of golf. Right now that’s an education.”

South Korean players on the LPGA Tour have been known to devote themselves fully to the sport.

Many of the country’s top players like Park Inbee, Lee Ilhee and Lee Mirim openly acknowledged this particular trait during the 2015 ANA Inspiration.

“Hobbies? No, I don’t have time, it’s all about hit, hit, hit,” Lee Mirim said. “I think a lot of players are like that.”

Alison Lee doesn’t really fall into that category.

“I don’t spend too much time practicing,” she said. “People laugh at me when I go to tournaments and see that I’m not practicing as much as others.”

Whether that’s hurting or helping her game is yet to be determined, but it seems to be working for her so far.

“Alison has the most well-rounded game of any player I have ever coached at this age,” Forsyth said. “She doesn’t have a weakness. Most players do.”

Those were the exact words that fellow Korean American Michelle Wie and swing coach David Leadbetter used to describe world No. 1 Lydia Ko just before 2015′s first major.

Lee’s ceiling could be very high and now that she’s starting to settle into her new lifestyle, it’s likely she will only improve with time.

Alison receives a brand new set of clubs from her father and her brother shares in the excitement. (Courtesy of Alison Lee)

Alison receives a brand new set of clubs from her father and her brother shares in the excitement. (Courtesy of Alison Lee)