Australia’s highest-ranked golfer Minjee Lee intends to use her historic Greg Norman Medal win to further progress the women’s game.
Karen Lunn could see the fear in the eyes of Minjee Lee.
Just two years into her professional career and only a couple of months out of her teenage years, Lee arrived at the 2016 International Crown in Illinois as the No.13 player in the world and Australia’s No.1.
When officials from the LPGA approached Karrie Webb about an interview to run through the team and their chances of winning, the Aussie legend quickly pointed to Lee and reminded them who was leading the team that week.
Given her own struggles in coping with intense media attention throughout her illustrious career Webb could have been accused of throwing her young heir apparent to the wolves but Lunn understood the lesson she was trying to pass on.
“Minjee almost fell off her chair when Karrie said that but she is starting to become more comfortable in that role now which is exciting to watch,” explained Lunn, herself an accomplished tour player and now CEO of the ALPG.
Lee’s profile within Australian sport took a further leap last December when she became the first female recipient of the Greg Norman Medal.
Although she was unable to attend the glittering ceremony at RACV Royal Pines Resort during the Australian PGA Championship, Lee’s win garnered widespread coverage as she edged out Jason Day, Cameron Smith and Lucas Herbert to claim Australian golf’s most prestigious honour.
Shy by nature and still just 22 years of age, the significance of Lee’s win has not been lost on the young West Australian who will play the Women’s Australian Open at The Grange Golf Club and defend her ISPS HANDA Vic Open crown at Thirteenth Beach Golf Links in February.
“To be the first female recipient of the Greg Norman Medal is pretty special not just for me but for women’s sport in Australia,” Lee told The Professional.
“I know golf in Australia is probably not as popular as some of the other sports but we’re really trying to get more exposure for the game.
“Women’s sport in general in Australia is becoming more popular and there’s been a real emergence in terms of exposure and coverage in the media.
“To be a role model in Australia in that sense is such a great pleasure to me. It really does mean a lot to me.
“When I was growing up I was always part of the national program and they were always trying to grow the game and it has always been a big goal of mine to be a good role model to the young golfers coming up.
“Obviously I’m a MyGolf ambassador in Australia and that has been really special to me, to see the kids play golf and get into golf.
“I’ve become more comfortable to be in this position and it’s a big goal of mine to be a good role model and an ambassador for golf in Australia and for women’s sport in Australia.
“It’s pretty special to me.”
In receiving a high honour of her own last year – she was named an Officer of the Order of Australia in September – Webb reflected on her own reluctant celebrity in an interview with the New York Times.
She conceded that “the shy kid from Ayr got in the way of me being a part of a bigger conversation”, a conversation that Lunn is confident Lee will be more open to joining.
“I have had conversations in the past with her about her responsibilities as our No.1 player mainly to help her understand the power she now has and what she can do for not only herself but women’s golf,” Lunn explained.
“Karrie at 21 or 22 probably wouldn’t have understood what that actually meant. All Minjee wants to do is what Karrie wanted and that was to go out and play golf and to win.
“Until people point out to you the power that you have in that position it’s something that’s difficult to grasp.
“It’s very easy if you’re outgoing and happy to chat but if you’re not it’s hard.
“Karrie would have some great advice to pass on to Minjee because you don’t know what it’s like living in their shoes until you’re actually there.
“Karrie would wear her glasses and hat on the golf course and take them off at the end of the day and no one would recognise her and she loved that where a lot of people crave the attention. Karrie isn’t like that and I know Minjee isn’t either.
“If the young kids don’t see someone like a Minjee Lee on television and being our No.1 player and being top five in the world, if that’s not out there consistently then they’ve got no one to aspire to be like.
“We haven’t had a genuine superstar since Karrie was dominant but now we’ve got Minjee and she is genuinely a world-class player.
“We want to see her make the most out of whatever media attention she can get.
“Anyone involved in women’s golf in Australia wants to see Minjee out there and doing every interview she is asked to do and kicking butt in all of them and while that may not be realistic that’s what we would love.
“It’s a heavy weight on a young person’s shoulders but from the outside she seems to me to be handling it all really well and that’s only going to keep happening.”
Defending the crown
Minjee Lee’s first Greg Norman Medal will almost certainly not be her last and given the goals she has for 2019 the boys might struggle to wrest it back from her.
While Jason Day won twice on the PGA TOUR, Lee’s consistently exceptional results across the entire year made her the standout candidate for 2018.
She won the Vic Open in February and the LPGA Volvik Championship in May yet it could have been so much more.
Amongst her 13 top-10 finishes on the LPGA Tour last year she was among the top five on nine separate occasions, ending the year with $US1,551,032 in prize money to be second on the Official Money List and sixth in the Rolex World Rankings.
But her only top 10 in the majors for the year came at the Ricoh Women’s British Open, providing plenty of room for improvement in 2019.
“That’s definitely high on my list,” Lee said of winning a maiden major championship.
“I would really like to be able to contend and post some results in the majors.
“That will be a big goal of mine next year.”
Only two Australian women, Webb and Hall of Fame inductee Jan Stephenson, have won majors with Webb’s seventh win coming 13 years ago at the Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Contending in majors is a surefire way to generate media attention and Lunn has no doubt that Lee is poised to join those greats of Australian women’s golf.
“Not since Karrie have we had anyone as good as Minjee,” said Lunn, who also announced Lee as the ALPG Player of the Year for 2018.
“She’s an absolutely fantastic golfer and with a bit of luck she could have won a hatful of tournaments last year.
“It felt as though she was in contention almost every week and I know she was disappointed to only have one LPGA win to show for it but I think we’ll be seeing a lot more next year.
“The more she matures as a person the more her golf will mature and given how great a player she is the sky really is the limit.
“She’s got all the tools she needs to get to the top and it’s going to be a lot of fun watching her in 2019.”
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