SOUTHERN PINES, NC – Karrie Webb and Jan Stephenson have long been the standard for Australian golfers. With 10 top titles in between, each debate on the greatest golfers from Down Under began – and ended – with the names Webb and Stephenson.
On Sunday afternoon at Pine Needles, the duo became a trio.
Minjee Lee, the daughter of Western Australia, won the 77th US Women’s Open in a dominant way, defeating the field of the world’s best players by four strokes. In doing so, she becomes only the third woman from Australia to hold multiple major titles.
“It’s a great honor to be between those two names,” Lee said. “It’s simple, really special.”
The driving range is a lonely place on Sunday afternoons, and this Sunday in Carolina Sandhills was no different.
As the contenders filtered out and the real candidates arrived, real estate at the back of the Pine Needles range was plentiful. With almost every competitor already on the track (or on a plane to their next destination), and with a few fans traveling to the far end of the range, the players in the last few groups have had a place mostly for themselves.
Lydia Ko took a seat on the far right, drawing high strokes in the breeze as her sneakers and mother looked on. A few steps to her left, Bronte Law was preparing for perhaps the most significant round of her life. With a wallet of 10 million dollars, the Englishwoman was in line for the highest salary in her career.
Further down the line, with a series of blank posters in between, Mina Harigae went through her own warm-up. As has been the case all week, her matte PXG irons kept repeating – and satisfactorily – strokes as she made her way through the bag. Her caddy, dressed in red high Jordan 1s (perhaps as a sign of Harigae’s self-proclaimed brand obsession), watched and encouraged her professional, knowing full well that this could be a life-changing day.
Finally, there was Lee, who wore a neon green polo with a simple phrase on his back: “Win at all costs.” It was a fitting reminder given the stakes. The leader with 54 holes was the last to arrive at the shooting range and left a lot of space between himself and his competition.
It was a fitting scene – Lee arrived on her own terms and with a huge gap between herself and the competition – as the scoreboard reflected a similar dynamic. Lee was there, and then everyone else was there.
Through 54 holes, Lee dictated the pace on the Pine Needles. She played fearlessly – and sometimes flawlessly – and in the process rewrote the US Open women’s record book.
It only took Lee 200 shots to play the first three rounds, the least of any competitor in the history of the championship, and only one player was on three shots from her 54-hole lead.
Lee was there, and then everyone else was there.
The theme continued during the last round, and by the end of the day, the 26-year-old had lifted the US Open trophy for women.
On Saturday night, as Lee addressed the media after her third round of 67, she offered a confident and insightful answer to a question about her game plan in the final round.
“I’ll just try to make as many birds as possible,” she said.
She kept her promise.
After surviving the tremor before the round, Lee played her Srixon on the first tee and tore the driver down the left side of the fairway. Her second swing of the day broke the ball through the east breeze and ended up 30 feet from the flag. Twice later, her first round of the day was on the map.
Her other hole was equally fertile. Fairway, green, jarred putt (this time long). Lee’s advantage suddenly rose to five as she went to the 3rd tee box to 15 less.
But on the day Pine Needles (finally) played as a real test of the US Women’s Open, the middle part of Lee’s round was a battle.
Lee, who didn’t have her usual ball kick on Sunday, dropped a shot in the 5th and another in the 7th. The track played nearly two and a half shots stronger on Sunday than the day before, so the mistakes were understandable.
But even when the ship was fickle, nothing could sink the Aussie. Not missed green, or unusually lying in a sandy natural area, or three-way on cunning Bermuda shorts. More often than not, when Lee found trouble, she escaped unscathed.
“I didn’t get it right,” she said. “I’ve had really good rescues, ups and downs from a lot of places… That was enough to do it today.”
When she stepped on the 18th tee, her advantage was five over her partner in the game. The only drama that remained was the question of whether Lee could break the US Open record for women.
The current record lasts 26 years. Annika Sorenstam set the mark at 272 in 1996 – on this course – and no one has surpassed it since. He was tied twice, by Juli Inkster in 1999 and In Gee Chun in 2015, but no one managed to go lower than Sorenstam at Pine Needles in 1996.
Much has changed about pine needles since Sorenstam threw her to her knees. Kyle Franz led a major restoration project in 2017, and this week the trail resembled what Donald Ross envisioned when he built the site. Indigenous sandy areas line the waterways, and bunkers are jagged and uneven along the edges.
The greenery has also changed. The 18-year-old was a special focus for Franz and his team. As part of the project, he widened the back-right section, connecting the two hills to create one of the most devilish needle locations you’ll ever see.
As fate would have it, that location was in play for the last 18 holes of this Open. To break the scoring record, Lee would have to move with it – and make the card anything worse than a bogeyman.
Her shot could not have been placed in a better place to access the pin location – the left side of the fairway – and her approach landed in the middle of the green. She could finally take a deep breath and enjoy the walk.
“I just said to myself, ‘This is pretty amazing,'” Lee said. “This is pretty cool.
The audience showered her with praise as she took her last walk – there were even a few “Aussie Aussie Aussie!” tunes – as the sun set under the tall pines.
After Harigae signed up for her couple, the stage was set for the coronation. Lee, perhaps because of the adrenaline and emotions that pierced her, needed three punches to finish the job, but the result was the same.
Once again, she was a great champion, and the US Open women’s record was only hers.
“I can’t believe it right now,” Lee said. “It’s been my dream since I was a child. This is the one I have always wanted to win; I’ve done it now and I feel amazing. “
After the trophy award ceremony was over, and her neon shirt was sufficiently soaked in champagne, Lee entered the interview space, with a trophy in her hand. Her smile shone as she flipped through the phone and prepared to be full of questions.
“I just can’t believe it,” she said.
Karrie Webb has already sent a message congratulating Lee on his victory.
Lee’s game provided answers to many 72-hole questions at Sandhills, but at least one question remained: has she already thought about her special place in her country’s golf history?
“Right now, I can’t even think properly,” she said.
Here’s one way to think about it: from this day forward, when the topic of Australia’s greatest golfers is brought up, three names will come to mind.
Karrie Webb, Jan Stephenson and Minjee Lee.