Minjee Lee at the Espirito Santo Trophy presentation
Minjee Lee knows the drill. But now the money is on the line, literally.
Australia’s world No. 1 ranked amateur has turned professional and she begins her new life in the season’s fifth major, the Evian Championship, in France this week. Her coach, Ritchie Smith, believes that Lee is already a world class player and all that is required is to prove it day-to-day.
The young woman from Perth has given up more than $200,000 in prize money this year alone in tournament earnings, with a win in the Oates Victorian Open at 13th Beach, a tie for 11th at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open, and two strong finishes in majors in America – 24th in the Kraft Nabisco Championship and 20th in the Women’s US Open.
But the two-time Australian amateur champion turned professional after steering Australia to its first victory in 12 years in the women’s world team championships, the Espirito Santo Trophy, in Japan last weekend. Along with her teammate in Japan, Su Oh, she is regarded as being the best female golfing talent to emerge from this country since Karrie Webb.
The Evian Championship at Evian Resort Golf Club in Evian-les-Bains, France, is worth $3 million and is officially the fifth women’s major. The tournament has been played for some years but was upgraded to major status in 2013.
Lee’s coach Ritchie Smith predicted immediate success for the Western Australian. “I don’t want to put numbers on it but I believe she can be a world class player,’’ he told golf.org.au. “I think she’s world class already. She just hasn’t had the opportunity to play enough events.’’
Lee said the change to playing professionally would require subtle adjustments, but that they were not insurmountable. “The great unknown is what happens when you start playing for money,’’ he said. “She can’t do any more from a playing perspective than what she’s done. She’s obviously been able to handle the pressure of media and the attention. It’s whether she can handle the financial things as well. That’s my only real concern.
“I guess (there is) being away from her service providers as well. She’s got to learn to communicate at a higher level than she’s been doing. But mentally, physically, technically she’s as good as we can have her.’’
Lee carded 64 and 65 in the last two rounds in Japan to show she is in white hot form. Smith said a grip change – a slight adjustment of the left hand – was kicking in. “When she came back from America she complained to me that her grip did not right. I’ve been wanting to change her grip for about three years but I haven’t had the opportunity to do so, because she’s never questioned it, so that was my opportunity to get in there. We changed it about three weeks before that event in Japan. It’s all good but she hadn’t put it into play and the first two rounds of that were her first two rounds, and she wasn’t totally ready. But we saw what happened in the last two. I really feel it will work well.’’
There are six Australians in the field at Evian, headed by veteran Karrie Webb, who remains ranked in the top 10 players in the world after two wins on the LPGA Tour this year.
Suzann Pettersen of Norway is the defending champion.
Also on the line this week is the inaugural Rolex ANNIKA award for the best-performed player in the five majors, which Michelle Wie leads on 84 points after her win in the United States Open and her runner-up finish in the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Wie has been sidelined with a painful index finger injury, but she makes her tournament return this week. “It’s actually quite amazing to be back in a tournament. I think I was thinking a lot about it, and you kind of take your health for granted,” she said. “You know, when you’re healthy and you play and a lot of times and you practice, you’re like, oh, it’s practice. You kind of have that mentality. But you kind of really do take your health for granted, and you really shouldn’t, and I think that with my injury it just kind of put a lot of things in perspective for me about how important your health is.”
THE AUSTRALIANS AT EVIAN