Minjee Lee, the invisible champion without an Australian sponsor

It’s a somewhat sad reflection on sport that Minjee Lee might hit No.1 in the world before she so much as turns a head in the street at home. Call her the Invisible Champion of Australia.

She can’t even pick up an Australian sponsor. The top-ranked golfer in this country is at No.2 on the world rankings, and she plays plastered in the corporate logos of a string of overseas companies, right down to the Hana on her cap, endorsing the big Korean bank.

On the cusp of world No.1: Australia’s Minjee Lee.Credit:AP

The Koreans have not been shy about celebrating her heritage as the daughter of two immigrants, Soonam and Clara Lee, who moved to Perth from South Korea a couple of decades ago and had two children – Minjee and brother Min Woo, now 20 and also a rising professional golfer.

Is it the media's lack of interest in women's golf? The fact that she plays overseas? Or is it the awful notion that people don't realise that she's an Australian, despite being born in Perth and representing her country at various levels right up to the 2016 Olympic Games?

Lee declined the fairly common Asian notion of anglicising her first name for western consumption, saying it reflected her heritage.

“My grandpa gave me that name, so we decided to keep it,” she said this week. “It comes back to my roots. I’m Australian, but my parentage is Korean, so it’s nice to have some part of that, even through my name.’’

Whatever the reasons for her lack of exposure here, Perth's Lee, just 22, is getting better all the time. If she wins this weekend in Virginia, or next week at the US Women's Open in Charleston, she will become the first Australian woman to reach No.1 in the world.

Not even the great Karrie Webb was officially No.1 (although this is a moot point, since the rankings only started in 2006, after Webb’s most dominant period in the game).

Lee has been in the top 10 for the last year after a stellar 2018 when she won once and logged an astonishing 13 top-10s on the LPGA Tour, and she vaulted to No.2 after winning in Los Angeles recently.

Minjee Lee after winning the LA Open in April.Credit: AP

Not inclined to whinge about lack of support from home, she just gets on with the job with her jaunty walk and her bright clothes and easy smile.

“If you think about it, all the successful Australian players, I don’t think any of them have Australian sponsors,” she said. “I guess it’s pretty poor in that sense.’’

Lee became the first woman to win the Greg Norman Medal as Australia’s top golfer last year, continuing the upward curve. Hailing from Royal Fremantle Golf Club, she had won the state title at just 10, the United States junior in 2013 and was No.1 on the world amateur rankings by the time she won the 2014 Vic Open at 17, beating the pros.

As a professional she has already won five times on the LPGA Tour, but when she was left off a comprehensive list of Australia’s top sports women last year, her coach Ritchie Smith was gobsmacked. “It really gives me the ‘irrits’,’’ said Smith, who has coached Lee since she was 12. “This is a truly international sport, not cricket or footy.”

Lee’s ball-striking is pure; a flusher, they call her. She’s not long by comparison with some of the other superstars – Sung Hyun Park of South Korea and Ariya Jutanugarn of Thailand, for instance – but she’s getting longer, adding 10 metres to her driving distance this year alone.

Smith recalls this being an issue when he first saw her in Perth at 12. “We’re talking about a little girl and she’s operating against a much higher level and trying to compete with these kids and beating them, but swinging quite inefficiently in order to do so. We took quite a while to fix that.’’

She’s going to do it by herself, and she’s going to do it to the best of her ability.

Lee’s mother was a teaching professional at the driving range near the family home in Winthrop, in Perth’s southern suburbs, and her father was a single-figure player, too. Her brother took an immediate shine to the game, but she took her time coming around.

“I was learning how to play piano, I was in the school choir. I don’t think anybody knew that, but I was doing lots of things, even dancing. Golf was just another one of the things that I did when I was younger.”

Clara Lee gave her Post-It notes so that she could set her goals, sticking them on her desk at home, and her parents moved her in year 11 (from MLC College to Corpus Christi) so that she was closer to Royal Fremantle for her long practice sessions. “Driven,” is how Smith describes her.

Her mother still travels with her most of the time when they are not in Perth or the home Lee bought in Dallas, Texas, as a base. “Clara’s influence is massive,” said Smith. “Clara puts the structure in place and the stability and the support.’’

Golfing family: Minjee Lee’s brother, Min Woo Lee.Credit:AAP

Lee likes having her mother around. “Obviously you’re going to butt heads at some point in your life, but I guess we’ve had a good run so far. I mean I could probably do all the things that she does, but it’s just nice to have the company.’’

At the golf course, she is a solitary figure with a remarkable work ethic, known to lift as much weight in the gym as the young male players when she entered the elite amateur programs. She's unlike Min Woo, who is gregarious, and also her greatest fan. "We describe it as: ‘I’m a squiggly line, and she’s a very straight line, trying to get to a destination'," he said.

While Webb has been a mentor, she likes to practise by herself most of the time. “She doesn’t need anyone pissing in her pocket,’’ said Smith. “She’s going to do it by herself, and she’s going to do it to the best of her ability.’’

No.1 in the world? It has a nice ring to it, not that she’s holding her breath.

“I feel like I don’t get caught up in anything, really,” she said. “For all my career I’ve never been the type to do that or to think about the rankings too much. I’m always working around my game; not around the end result.

"If you’re working on your game and improving that, it will come. It’s a process that you have to go through for that to happen.’’

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