Korea’s newest star K.H. Lee vividly remembers competing against Hideki Matsuyama during his amateur days. Back then, the slender Japanese stood out due to his raw talents and also for his tremendous work ethics where he would pound golf ball after ball for hours at the practice range.
It is a lasting memory that would help shape Lee’s own golf career.
As the Korean prepares for his third U.S. Open at Torrey Pines starting on Thursday, the 29-year-old knows only too well that he needs to keep living the mantra of “The harder you practice, the luckier you get” coined by South African legend Gary Player if he is to emulate Matsuyama’s major success in the near future.
Two months ago, Matsuyama, who is six months younger than Lee, triumphed at the Masters Tournament to become only the second Asian major winner after Y.E. Yang’s historic breakthrough in 2009. Seeing a fellow Asian rewrite golf history has served as added motivation for Lee, who first met Matsuyama when the Japanese ace won the 2010 Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. Lee finishing tied fourth and 11 shots back in the event.
“I was very impressed with how Hideki won the Masters. I was very happy as we have played with each other since our amateur days and I have gotten to know him. He is very humble and he practices a lot. He is a hard worker and his win has motivated me and other Asian golfers. I think maybe next time, I will win a major. It was nice to see him do it,” said Lee.
Lee is also renowned for spending between 12 to 15 hours a day at the range back home to sharpen his game where the hard work finally paid off with his first PGA TOUR victory at the AT&T Byron Nelson in May. Naturally, he hungers for more success.
He had qualified for the U.S. Open in 2014 and 2019 but missed the cut on both occasions. His other major appearance came at last month’s PGA Championship which was also short week, thus prompting him to alter his preparation ahead of this week. Lee took last week off to rest up in his Lake Nona home and knuckle down on some final preparation for what he expects to be a severe test at Torrey Pines, which last hosted the U.S. Open in 2008 – the year Tiger Woods secured a famous victory. Torrey Pines also hosts the Farmers Insurance Open annually on the PGA TOUR.
“I’m very excited about the week. Previously, I have prepared for majors the same way but since I have now played in a few more, I don’t think my preparation can be like usual. The golf course is very different, and course strategy will be different. It is crucial to know the course and prepare more than before, My preparation started last week,” he said.
“On my two occasions at the U.S. Open, I feel like they try to test every player to their limits. They test how much players prepare with their tough set-ups. It is important to hit the driver well to keep the ball on the fairway. I’ll need to focus on my short game and putting. That can make a difference between the winner and the rest,” said Lee.
A debut appearance at the PGA Championship last month, which was courtesy of his breakthrough victory, was bitter-sweet as Lee missed the cut. However, he enjoyed a chance opportunity of playing a nine-hole practice round with Phil Mickelson, who won the tournament at age 50.
“I was a little disappointed. After winning Byron, my condition wasn’t good. I arrived in Kiawah Island on Monday and couldn’t prepare well. When playing on tough courses, I feel you need more patience. I need to stay patient when my game is not going well. Torrey Fines is also a very tough golf course and I need to be sure to remain patient,” said Lee. “I’ve never met Phil before and it was great seeing how he practiced and the love Phil has for golf. He was so passionate with every shot that he hits and it is incredible a 50-year-old like him has the energy and drive like a rookie. I can imagine myself being bored or tired of golf at his age but I literally saw how he genuinely enjoys golf. It was such a big motivation.”
With the PGA TOUR’s Regular Season concluding in August, Lee’s other main goal for 2021 will be to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs Finale, the TOUR Championship which is exclusive to the top-30 players. He currently ranks 33rd on the points list.
“I have never achieved this before and now that I’m in a good position, I’ll give it my best. Another goal obviously is to play well in the majors, including this week’s U.S. Open, and I know I need more experience to prepare for it,” he said.
Other Koreans in the field this week include Sungjae Im, Sung Kang and three-time PGA TOUR winner Si Woo Kim. The best finish by a Korean player in the U.S. Open was by Y.E. Yang when he finished tied third in the 2011 edition. Im finished 22nd at Winged Foot last year to emerge as the leading Korean.