SOUTHERN PINES, NC — In every major championship, there’s a winning moment, but that doesn’t mean there’s always a dramatic moment.
For Minjee Lee, who captured the second major title of her career with relative ease at the US Women’s Open on Sunday, that proved to be the case as the 26-year-old Aussie’s winning moment ended up happening more than 24 hours earlier. In fact, it came on Saturday afternoon, when a string of four straight birdies on Nos. 9-12 at Pine Needles, plus two bogeys from Mina Harigae, turned a tight qualifying into a potential loss. At the time, Lee was 13 under and had a four-shot lead over Harigae.
As Sunday’s final round drew to a close, the fourth-ranked player in the world was still at 13 under with a four-shot lead over Harigae. And her total of 271 had set the all-time 72-hole scoring record for the longest continuously played championship in women’s golf.
Of course, nobody knew at the time that the swing in the middle of the third round would be decisive; There was so much golf left to play, which is why the winning moment is always identified in hindsight. And yet, on a dry and windy Sunday at Southern Pines, the field showed its teeth for the first time, and the field’s scoring average was more than two shots higher than the day before. That reality more or less eliminated the possibility of someone going out and catching the now eight-time LPGA champion.
Only Lee herself, wearing a bright green T-shirt with the letters WAAC emblazoned across the front (“Win at all costs,” both a South Korean clothing company and an appropriate mantra), could pull off a close ending, and only she could do it. she was falling into a late spiral similar to events a year ago when Lexi Thompson blew a five-shot lead with eight holes to play.
That wasn’t happening. In fact, collapse never remotely felt possible. At his press conference on Saturday night, there was no talk of caution or prudence. “I’m going to try to make as many birdies as I can,” Lee said, showing his intention to remain aggressive despite the big lead.
True to his word, he came out at the start of his last championship round with two birdies in a row: the first a tap-in after narrowly missing an eagle putt and the second a bomb from nearly 40 feet. That was the official signal to the field; there would be no caution at the top of the leaderboard.
Whether you believe the championship was truly over at that point, or that it came as late as the 12th hole, when he made an eight-foot birdie putt to extend his lead to six shots, Lee only seemed anything close to be nervous in one or two strokes. in the first nine. And in those brief moments, she made sure the bogey was the worst score she could make. Excellent eight-foot par stops on the 9th and 11th holes, followed by a 12-foot par on the 13th and an up-and-down from the sand on the 14th only added to the sense of inevitability.
The only drama was whether he could tie or break another US Open scoring record relative to par (16 under), and when he hit a massive 3-wood onto the green from 271 yards away at par 5 15, it seemed tangible. . He birdied there, but a bogey on the 16th and a Scheffler-style triple putt at Augusta-National on the 18th green meant he would have to “settle” for the reward that received as much attention as any story all season. week. : A $1.8 million cash prize for first place out of a staggering $10 million purse.
“Even with a three-shot lead, I never felt comfortable today,” Lee said afterward, having fooled everyone watching all afternoon. “I felt like I still needed to play well. I still needed to hold my ground. That’s pretty much what I did. Start aggressive, I think it was the right move, and after that I had a big shooting advantage, so I was able to play my game to end up”.
For her troubles, Lee won the largest single-tournament prize in women’s golf history. (Later this year, the winner of the LPGA’s CME Tour Championship will top that number, with a $2 million top prize.)
That massive purse the USGA gave away this week, after adding a title sponsor in ProMedica to nearly double the previous year’s $5.5 million jackpot, also opened up a novel possibility. For the first time in the history of women’s golf, the second place finalist He would also win a million dollars… but only if there was a second solo.
Harigae, in the final group with Lee, began the day at 10-under and dealt with severe nerves in the front nine. Despite her nerves, the 32-year-old journeyman who had just $2,000 in her bank account in the summer of 2020 hit par after par, dropping only one shot per turn. Another bogey on her 11th brought her into a three-way tie for second with Lydia Ko and Hye-jin Choi at eight under, and for a moment it looked like she might lose her million-dollar payday. But Ko faded, bogeying three of her last four holes, while Choi followed up a birdie on the 16th with a bogey on the last to drop to seven under par.
When Harigae went up and down from 100 yards on the par-5 15 for birdie, he only needed to play a couple of golf to secure second place, and that’s what he did. “That was probably one of the best rounds where I was really nervous. But I think I handled it pretty well in this situation. I’m proud of myself,” she said. “I belong up there.”
However, as for catching Lee, Harigae only had fleeting glimpses. “Kind of pockets here and there,” he said. “Obviously she got off to a really good start. Maybe that bogey on that par 3, maybe it opened the door for me a little bit, but she was super solid.”
(She and her caddy and fiancé, Travis Keiter, are serious Jordan sneaker collectors, and Keiter wore a red Barcelona high-top on Sunday. When asked if being Harigae’s fiancé meant a higher or lower cut than normal, said, “I hope it’s a higher cut this week”).
Other stories also unfolded on Sunday. In her first tournament back from a long hiatus after undergoing surgery for blood clots in her arm, Nelly Korda finished tied for eighth at two under par.
“The first week back you have rust, right?” she said of her performance. “You don’t really expect much from your game. You don’t know where your game is. Knowing that I can play a really tough golf course at a major and even be in contention is definitely a positive.”
Ingrid Lindblad, the LSU All-American via Sweden who made waves after a Thursday 65 while teaming with her childhood hero Annika Sorenstam, finished as the amateur down one under after a tough final round 76. Her total of 283 it was tied. for the second lowest 72-hole score by an amateur in US Women’s Open history.
“Everyone is cheering for you,” said Linblad, of his favorite experience of the week. “Maybe not if you’re related to Minjee Lee, who’s in the lead, but everyone’s cheering you on. And the people here have been amazing, like they’re yelling, ‘come on Tigers’ and ‘come on Ingrid’ and like, ‘good work this week’ and everything. It’s been a lot of fun.”
Lee, who was born in the city of Perth, in Western Australia, is one of only three Australian women to win a major since the turn of the century, along with Hannah Green (KPMG Women’s PGA 2019) and one of her heroines from the childhood, Karrie Webb. (an eight-stroke winner at Pine Needles at the 2001 US Women’s Open as one of seven major titles). She is also the third Australian to win a US Women’s Open, Jan Stephenson being the first in 1983.
Lee is hopeful that this will spur growth in his home country. “I think this will be great for all the little girls and even the boys and kids watching,” said Lee, whose brother, Min Woo, is a DP World Tour winner. “I know there’s been a big boom in [Western Australia]. The girls have been much more interested in playing, so hopefully they’ll see me on TV and I can be a good role model for them and they’ll start to get more involved.”
In her post-round press conference, she flashed a bright, engaging smile, but was otherwise as composed as she was when she had a three-shot lead on Saturday night, and as composed as she looked but didn’t feel, in the field on Sunday. When it comes to competitive role models, Minjee Lee is as good as she is at women’s golf, and if her brilliance under pressure from her is any indication, there are plenty more winning moments to come.