Danny Lee, 18, Is Young and Leaving an Impression at AT&T National
Saturday, July 4, 2009
The only indication yesterday that Danny Lee is the youngest participant in the AT&T National was a boyish face that seemed a better fit at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High than Congressional Country Club. But neither Lee's performance nor his demeanor suggested that he is only 18 years old, has been a professional for less than three months and is visiting Washington for the first time.
Lee, born in South Korea and raised in New Zealand, shot a 3-under-par 67 yesterday. It followed Thursday's 2-under-par 68, keeping Lee with a five-under-par 135 to be tied for eighth with four others. A top finish will be critical for Lee, who is playing on an exemption earned from winning last year's U.S. Amateur. He is seeking an invitation to the British Open and the PGA Tour next season.
"If I keep playing this, like today and the day before, I'll end up finishing really great the next couple days," Lee said. "Hopefully, I'll have some luck."
The serenity that Lee exhibited was by design and not by nature. Lee made a commitment to calmness following a string of disappointing finishes.
Lee received the "phenom" label after becoming the youngest player to ever win the U.S. Amateur. He broke the record of another golfer who once had that label: Tiger Woods.
The U.S. Amateur title earned Lee a spot in the Masters. Quickly after the Masters, Lee became a professional. He immediately agreed to prominent endorsement deals. The compensation, which Lee's manager Michael Yim declined to reveal, would have been greater if not for the economy.
"Very marketable," Yim said of Lee. "He has so much upside. As long as he does what he does very well, it's limitless."
Lee's problem was he hit a stretch upon turning professional when he did not fulfill his end of the deal. The pressure to match the hype affected Lee's mechanics and mentality. He pushed his weight forward while swinging, losing the balance he desired. After poor shots, he'd become frustrated with himself. In six PGA events since turning professional, Lee missed the cut three times -- including his last two events.
"I felt like I had to do great every week," Lee said. "I was pushing myself really hard, and it didn't go well."
After last weekend's Travelers Championship, Lee's parents enforced an attitude that he attributes for his success this weekend.
"It's only sports," Lee said. "No matter what, you play good or bad, my parents, they're still going to love me, and it's not the end of the world. I just learned that last week."
Lee found himself in difficult situations yesterday, but still managed to finish better than the day before. On the par-4 No. 5, Lee's drive missed the fairway. He still finished with a birdie. Even while bogeying the par-3 No. 10, Lee did not let the day's lone bogey affect his mentality.
"I wasn't going to get mad at it," Lee said. "I just laughed at it. I think that helps me a lot."
He explains this philosophy as if he just discovered the key to unlock what could become the next great golfer. Three months ago, he was sleeping in the Crow's Nest at Augusta National in the same room where Woods once slept. Three months later, he's a wealthy teenager who enters the weekend at Woods's tournament with a chance to be in discussions on the final day -- as long as he maintains his newfound approach.
"Until the last week, it was really hard," Lee said. "But this week, somehow, it's really easy for me. So, I guess it's not that hard."