Minjee Lee wins the US Women’s Open in record fashion
SOUTHERN PINES, NC – Karrie Webb and Jan Stephenson have long been the benchmark for Australian female golfers. With 10 major titles between them, any discussion of Down Under’s greatest golfers began – and ended – with the names Webb and Stephenson.
Sunday afternoon at Pine Needles, this duo became a trio.
Western Australia’s Minjee Lee won the 77th US Women’s Open in dominant fashion, beating a field of the best players in the world by four strokes. In doing so, she becomes the third Australian woman to hold multiple major titles.
“It’s such a great honor to be among these two names,” Lee said. “It’s just really, really special.”
The driving range is a lonely place on a Sunday afternoon, and this Sunday in the Carolina Sandhills was no different.
As the suitors filtered in and the real suitors arrived, real estate at the back of the Pine Needles range was plentiful. With nearly every competitor already on the course (or on a plane to their next destination) and few fans making the trip to the end of the lineup, players in the latter groups had the place largely to themselves.
Lydia Ko occupied the seat on the far right, drawing high lines with the breeze as her younger brother and mother looked on. A few steps to his left, Bronte Law was preparing for perhaps the most important round of his life. With a $10 million purse up for grabs, the Englishwoman was in contention for the biggest payday of her career.
Further down the range, with a row of empty signs in between, Mina Harigae performed her own warm-up. As has been the case all week, her dull PXG irons made repeated – and satisfying – noises as she slammed her way through the bag. His caddy, outfitted in high-top red Jordan 1s (perhaps a nod to Harigae’s self-proclaimed obsession with the brand), watched and cheered on his pro, knowing full well it could change his life.
Finally, there was Lee, donning a neon green polo shirt with a simple phrase on the back: “Win at all costs.” It was a fitting reminder given the stakes. The 54-hole leader came last to the pits and left plenty of space between her and her opponents.
It was an appropriate scene – Lee arriving on her own terms and with a huge gap between her and the competition – as the scoreboard reflected a similar dynamic. There was Lee, then there was everyone else.
Through 54 holes, Lee had dictated the tempo at Pine Needles. She had performed fearlessly – and, at times, flawlessly – and rewritten the US Women’s Open record books in the process.
Lee needed just 200 strokes to play the first three rounds, the fewest of any competitor in championship history, and only one player was within three strokes of his 54-hole lead.
There was Lee, then there was everyone else.
The theme continued in the final round and at the end of the day, the 26-year-old lifted the US Women’s Open trophy.
On Saturday night, as Lee spoke to the media after her 67-year-old third round, she offered a confident and prescient response when asked about her final round game plan.
“I’m just going to try to do as many birdies as possible,” she said.
She kept her promise.
After surviving the pre-round jitters, Lee mounted his Srixon on the first tee and ripped the driver down the left side of the fairway. His second swing of the day sent the ball piercing the easterly breeze and ended less than 30 feet from the flagstick. Two putts later, his first circle of the day was on the board.
His second hole was just as successful. Fairway, green, jarred putt (a long one this time). Lee’s lead suddenly increased to five as she headed for the 3rd tee at 15 under.
But on a day when Pine Needles (finally) played as a true test of the US Women’s Open, the middle part of Lee’s round was a battle.
Lee, who lacked his usual ball-striking moxie on Sunday, dropped a shot in the 5th and another in the 7th. The course played almost two and a half shots harder on Sunday than the day before, so the mistakes were understandable.
But even when the ship was unstable, nothing could sink the Aussie. Not a missed green, not a wobbly lie in a sandy area, not a three-putt on the tricky greens of Bermuda. More often than not, when Lee got into trouble, she walked away unscathed.
“I didn’t hit very well,” she said. “I had some really good saves, ups and downs from a lot of places… It was enough to do that today.”
When she came off the 18th tee, her lead was five over her playing partner. The only drama that remained was whether Lee could break the US Women’s Open scoring record.
The current record has stood for 26 years. Annika Sorenstam set the mark of 272 in 1996 – on this same course – and no one has topped the mark since. He’s been equaled twice, by Juli Inkster in 1999 and In Gee Chun in 2015, but no one could go lower than Sorenstam at Pine Needles in 1996.
A lot has changed about Pine Needles since Sorenstam brought it to its knees. Kyle Franz led a major restoration project in 2017, and this week the course looked a lot like what Donald Ross envisioned when he built the place in the 1920s. Sandy native areas line the fairways and bunkers are jagged and ruffled at the edges.
The greens have also changed. The surface at 18 was a particular priority for Franz and his team. As part of the project, he extended the right rear section, connecting two mounds to create one of the most devilish pin placements you will ever see.
As fate would have it, this place was in play for the last 18 holes of this Open. To break the scoring record, Lee would have to navigate it – and card no worse than bogey.
His tee shot could not have been placed in a better spot to access the pin location – left side of the fairway – and his approach landed in the middle of the green. Finally, she could breathe deeply and enjoy the ride.
“I just thought, ‘This is pretty amazing,'” Lee said. “It’s pretty cool, just looking at the whole crowd and just everyone on the fairways.”
The crowd waved at her as she took the final walk – there were even a few “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” songs – and the sun was sinking under the towering pines.
After Harigae tapped for his par, the stage was set for the crowning glory. Lee, perhaps because of the adrenaline and emotion racing through her, needed three putts to finish the job, but the result was still the same.
She was a great champion again, and the US Women’s Open scoring record stood alone.
“I can’t believe it right now,” Lee said. “It’s been my dream since I was little. This is the one I always wanted to win on; now I did, and it’s just amazing.
With the awards ceremony over and her neon shirt sufficiently soaked in champagne, Lee walked into the interview area, trophy in hand. Her smile beamed as she flipped through her phone and prepared to be peppered with questions.
“I can’t believe it,” she said.
Karrie Webb had previously sent a message congratulating Lee on his victory.
Lee’s game had answered many questions about 72 holes in the Sandhills, but at least one question remained: Had she ever considered her special place in her country’s golfing history?
“I haven’t even been able to think straight yet,” she said.
Here’s one way to think about it: From this day forward, when the subject of Australia’s greatest female golfers comes up, three names will come to mind.
Karrie Webb, Jan Stephenson and Minjee Lee.