Photograph courtesy of Golf Australia
Minjee Lee is No. 7 in the world, and the reigning Greg Norman medallist, which makes her a big deal. But Australia’s top golfer is already planning her 2019 around getting better, starting with the ISPS Handa Vic Open at 13th Beach this week.The process is underway.
Lee and her coach in Perth, Ritchie Smith, are well aware that the two dominant players on the women’s tour, Thailand’s Ariya Jutanugarn and South Korea’s Sung Hyun Park, are long hitters, much more powerful than the slightly-built 22-year-old from Royal Fremantle.
The two-time Vic Open champion was 37th in driving distance on the LPGA Tour last year at 258 yards (236 metres), against Jutanugarn’s 15th at 266 yards (243 metres) and Park’s sixth at 269 yards (246 metres).
The gap does not seem enormous, but it makes a difference, and there is another fact to consider in those statistics: Jutanugarn does not deign to carry a driver. Her three wood goes far enough. “She can outdrive me with three wood,’’ said Lee. “That’s like rocket. I think it’s the same with everyone.’’
But as she sets out on a swing of four events in this part of the world – after 13th Beach it’s the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open next week followed by two LPGA tournaments in Asia – Lee has already started working on her deficiencies.
“I think probably length is one of the bigger factors. I’ve been trying to work on that in the off-season and I’ll be working on that throughout the whole year too,’’ said Lee today.
Asked how she could improve her power off the tee, she said: “I think a little bit of technical things and obviously hitting it pretty hard in the gym. It’s a mixture of both.’’
Lee, who won here as a teenaged amateur in 2014 and then again last year, said 12 months ago that she wanted to crack the top 10 players in the world in 2018. She achieved that goal with a season on the LPGA Tour that was notable for its consistency: a win, two runners-up, 13 top-10 finishes.
The world No. 1 ranking is within touching distance, but only after the processes are followed. “I try not to put a number on the rankings,” she said. “I know I did last time, I wanted to break into the top 10. But I think closer to the world No. 1 spot, I think you can play your process golf and those goals, if you hit them you’ll get closer to the No. 1 spot.’’
It’s a different feel for Lee at 13th Beach this year. She’s the defending champion, the top-ranked player in the field, and the media pack his following her. She spends more time at her home in Dallas, Texas, or on aeroplanes than she does in Perth. There is a degree of expectation to fulfil. “I’ve matured a bit since 2014,’’ she said. “I try to think of myself as pretty much the same person, and I try to carry myself the same.’’
It’s a special place for her given the significance of that astonishing performance in 2014, when she won by six shots, just 17 years of age. “When I won it as an ‘am’ it was really a big confidence-booster for me, so the Vic Open has always been a special tournament to come back to. I always love coming and playing Australia. The Vic Open and the Aussie Open are really big events for me.’’
The changes keep coming. Lee is now in a battle for bragging rights with her younger brother, Min Woo, who has turned professional and who finished fourth in a European Tournament last weekend at just his second start. They are extremely close, although nowadays, they are mostly limited to phone conversations and texts. “He’s enjoying himself,’’ said Minjee Lee. “Whenever I’m in town, he’s not in town. We miss each other usually.’’
Lee will tee off tomorrow morning from the 10th tee on the Creek Course at 8.10am alongside in-form Englishwoman Charley Hull and 2016 US Women’s Open champ Brittany Lang.
Of the other Australians expected to contend this week, Karrie Webb, Katherine Kirk, Sarah Jane Smith and Su oh will all tee off in tomorrow morning's wave on the Creek Course.
On the Beach Course in the afternoon, a series of marquee groups will be led away on the first tee from 12.10pm by Karis Davidson, Laura Davies and former Women’s Australian Open champ Haru Nomura.
Two women’s groups later, Hannah Green will play alongside Christina Kim and Cheyenne Woods in a trio of crowd favourites at 12.50pm.
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