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Australia’s Minjee Lee cruises to her first U.S. Women’s Open title

Minjee Lee: “It’s just super, super special and just a great honor. It’s been my dream since I was a little girl. It’s the one that I always wanted to win.” (Chris Carlson/AP)

SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. — Minjee Lee had just completed her second round at the U.S. Women’s Open when she glanced at her cellphone and noticed a text message from her golfing mentor and childhood idol, Karrie Webb.

“Let’s go Aussie,” it read.

Following those words of encouragement from the Hall of Famer and fellow Australian, Lee started her final round at Pine Needles golf club Sunday with back-to-back birdies, withstood an unusual unsteady stretch and played a mostly carefree back nine to secure her second major championship.

The fourth-ranked standout, who set the tournament’s 54-hole record Saturday, fired an even-par 71 on Sunday for a 13-under 271 total, four shots clear of Mina Harigae of the United States. Lee logged a second victory in her past four starts at major championships, and she has finished no lower than 12th place in that stretch.

Sunday's leader board

Lee, 26, won the Evian Championship in France last year, rallying from a seven-stroke deficit in the final round to beat Jeongeun Lee on the first playoff hole. She backed that improbable showing with a tie for fifth at the Women’s British Open at Carnoustie in Scotland.

“I mean, I’m speechless,” Lee said during Sunday’s trophy ceremony. “I can’t believe it right now. It’s just super, super special and just a great honor. It’s been my dream since I was a little girl. It’s the one that I always wanted to win.”

Hye-Jin Choi was third at 7 under; at 1-under 70, she produced the only final round below par among those near the top of a leader board that featured players from nine countries — including Sweden’s Ingrid Lindblad, the low amateur at 1-under 283 — in the top 13.

Lee removed virtually any drama when, leading by three at the start of the round, she birdied the 392-yard par-4 12th after landing her approach within nine feet and sinking the putt. That got her to 14 under.

One hole earlier, Harigae bogeyed the 374-yard par 4 to fall to 8 under. She entered the last round in second place — three shots behind Lee, who on Saturday broke by one stroke Hall of Famer Juli Inkster’s 54-hole record of 200 set at the 1999 U.S. Women’s Open at Old Waverly Golf Club in West Point, Miss.

Lee collected her 11th professional victory, and her second this year, as well as a record $1.8 million winner’s check that was part of a record overall purse in women’s golf at $10 million — an increase of $4.5 million from last year.

“To start aggressively, I think it was the right move,” said Lee, whose cushion expanded to six shots on the back nine en route to joining Webb and Jan Stephenson as the only Aussies to win major championships. “Then after that I had quite a big lead, so I was able to just play my game just to finish.”

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The relatively relaxing victory began to unfold when Lee opened a five-stroke margin after two holes, but she made a bogey at the par-3 fifth with an errant tee shot that landed in the right rough, then followed with another at the par-4 seventh when her drive settled in the dirt in front of a clump of high grass.

Unable to control the spin as she would have liked, Lee missed the green on her approach; the ball came to rest on the fringe, and she putted to 12 feet. She missed the ensuing par putt for just her seventh of nine bogeys at the tournament considered the most rugged test of golf in the world.

Only three players had fewer bogeys this week than Lee, who led the field in scrambling and was tied for third in greens in regulation, hitting 57 of 72 (79.2 percent). She was tied for ninth in putts per hole (1.64) and sank 44 of 47 putts from five feet or closer.

“She got off to a very hot start,” said Harigae, who earned a career-high payday of $1.08 million as the runner-up. “Maybe that bogey on that par 3, maybe it opened the door a tiny little, cracked open the door for me a little bit, but she was just super solid out there.”

Lee’s first bogey on her inward nine came at the par-3 16th, but she had forged such a cushion over Harigae that her lead was five even following a rare missed putt for par.

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She also missed a short putt for par at the 18th but calmly sank the comebacker for her only round of the tournament not below par. Then she raised her arms and hugged her caddie moments before several fellow players, including world No. 3 Lydia Ko of New Zealand, doused her with champagne.

Ko finished fifth at 5 under — one shot behind Jin Young Ko, the world No. 1 who’s still seeking her first triumph at the U.S. Women’s Open.

“I think she played amazing,” Lydia Ko said of Lee. “It’s hard even if you have a comfortable lead going into the last day. For her to be so composed, coming off a win a couple tournaments ago as well, it just shows what kind of world-class player she is. I’m sure this is not the last time she’s in contention in majors and is the one hoisting the trophy.”

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