GORDON WHITE: Greatness Easy to Predict for U.S. Am Winner Danny Lee
It was easy to predict great things for Danny Lee after watching the 18-year-old from New Zealand win the U.S. Amateur Championship rather handily on Pinehurst No. 2, last August.
Not since Tiger Woods came along as a teenage amateur has there been a golfer of that age to catch our imagination the way Lee has. He strengthened that belief a week ago when he did two things Tiger never managed to accomplish. He won a pro tour event as an amateur and did so while still less than 20 years of age.
Lee birdied the final two holes to win the Johnnie Walker Classic in Perth, Australia, by one shot last Sunday. This is a European PGA Tour event.
Tiger gained his first professional tour victory after turning pro in 1996 when he was 20.
Lee, who was born July 24, 1990, broke one of Tiger's marks here at Pinehurst No. 2, last August 24, when he became the youngest golfer to win the U.S. Amateur Championship. He was 18 years and one month old. Tiger won the first of his three consecutive U.S. Amateur Championships in 1994 at age 18 years, 7 months and 29 days.
That victory on Pinehurst No. 2 completed a month of amazing successes in the United States for Lee. He won the Western Amateur in Michigan the first week of August and one day prior to the start of the U.S Amateur, Lee finished tied for 20th in the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship in Greensboro.
Those who were fortunate enough to walk in Lee's gallery over Pinehurst No. 2 on Sunday, Aug. 24, were witnessing the arrival of a future star on the pro tours of Europe and the United States.
No, I will not say "another Tiger" the way many observers like to tab such young pros as Anthony Kim of the United States and Rory McIlroy, the 19-year-old pro from Northern Ireland. There simply will not be another Tiger Woods.
But Danny Lee is a superb golfer who displayed all his skills again last week in Perth, Australia, when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic over a field of impressive and seasoned professionals that included Anthony Kim.
It is generally felt that the primary difference between the winning pro tour golfer and those who just make a living on tour is the short game, particularly the putting.
Of course, the long game helps and Danny Lee can bang it out with the strongest of the touring pros -- and straight.
But if the putter is all that important, no wonder Lee is heading for success. This young fellow can wave that flat stick like Merlin waved his wand. The ball seems to be touched by magic when Lee putts, and it goes right where it is supposed to -- into the cup.
Born in Incheon, South Korea, Danny Lee moved with his parents to New Zealand when he was 8 years old in 1998.
Nine days after winning the U.S. Amateur here in Pinehurst, Lee became a citizen of New Zealand during a joyful, celebratory ceremony, last Sept. 2, at the Springfield Golf Course in his home town of Rotorua, New Zealand. He may well become one of the most famous Kiwi athletes in history.
Remember Michael Campbell? He is a native New Zealander who won the U.S. Open Championship here at Pinehurst No. 2 just four years ago. As predicted, he has sort of disappeared since that major triumph.
Danny Lee will not be disappearing for some time.
In fact, this youngster who is still in his senior year at Rotorua Boys High School, will be front and center at the Masters Tournament that starts, April 9. This will be Lee's first appearance in one of the four majors and his first chance in a field with so many of the world's premier players, including Tiger Woods.
However, the week prior to winning the U.S. Amateur at Pinehurst, Lee competed against many hardened PGA Tour golfers in the Wyndham Championship at Forest Oaks Country Club in Greensboro. He tied for 20th by shooting 12 under par for four rounds. Not bad for a teenager from half way around the world who never saw the course before that week.
The Wyndham ended Sunday, Aug. 17, and the U.S. Amateur began Monday, Aug. 18.
Lee never had a practice round on Pinehurst No. 2 prior to the Monday and Tuesday medal play that qualified him for the U.S. Amateur match play. He hardly had time to catch his breath and get some shut-eye.
Then it was simply amazing to watch him handle those treacherously rounded greens and their surrounding grounds of spill offs and deep, tightly mowed swales and bunkers.
During the final round scheduled for 36 holes, Lee finished off Drew Kittleson at the 32nd hole or par-4 14th hole of the course, Sunday, Aug. 24. He did it in the same methodical style he used to beat all of his previous opponents in the tournament by not allowing any of them to take him as far as the 18th hole.
Lee used his putter with the magical touch to roll in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 32nd hole to take our National Amateur title. That was only the 52nd putt Lee needed in the final round, well under 2 putts per hole.
Such superb play around and on the pillbox top greens of Pinehurst No. 2 is rare. Not even the pros at the 1999 and 2005 U.S. Opens on Pinehurst No. 2 did better than Lee.
But this young golfer will need all of those skills at Augusta National next month when he tees up in the Masters.
When the Scot, Donald Ross, rebuilt the Pinehurst No. 2 greens from sand to grass in the 1930s, and when the Englishman, Alister Mackenzie, designed Augusta National, also in the 1930s, they each created a course where 90 per cent of its strength and defenses are located on and immediately surrounding the 18 greens.
The difficulties at these two famous courses begin to arise when hitting approaches to those greens and trying to hold them. Once on a green, more problems face the golfer trying to putt the ball into the hole on the rounded tops of Pinehurst No. 2 and the rolling mountains that comprise Augusta National greens.
Of course, when golfers fail to hold those greens with approach shots, the chipping becomes sort of a golfing root canal.
I think Lee is up to it for the Masters. At least I believe he relishes the challenge. It would certainly be a big success for him if he made the cut at the Masters. That will be difficult. But I do predict Lee will some day wear the green jacket.
After all, when Danny Lee won the United States Amateur Golf Championship on Pinehurst No. 2, he could justifiably repeat Pistol's claim, "Why, then, the world's mine oyster."
But unlike Shakespeare's devilish character from "The Merry Wives of Windsor" who said he would open that oyster with a sword, Danny Lee will pluck his oyster/world with 14 golf clubs. The chances are Lee will reap a large harvest of pearls in years to come.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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