Minjee Lee has spent these last few years feeling the glories and agonies of golf more than most.
She won her first major tournament at the 2021 Evian Championship, a come-from-behind final victory, and followed it up less than a year later with a record-breaking victory at the 2022 US Women’s Open. Then came a tie for 43rd as she tried to defend her Evian title, concerns about exhaustion and a pair of frustrating finishes in this year’s first two majors.
Now ranked sixth in the world after reaching No. 2 last summer, Lee, a 27-year-old Australian, will have to conquer Pebble Beach Golf Links – the famous course on the California coast – if she is to defend her Open title. The tournament starts on Thursday.
In a spring interview at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, Lee discussed her master’s iron game, the dangers of Pebble Beach, the evolution of the women’s game and why winning a major once, never mind twice, is so difficult.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You haven’t missed a cut at a major since 2019.
I didn’t even know.
How much of that represents progression of your athletic talent versus your mindset?
You always try to get a little better every day. So for me, because of my progression and not missing a cut during that period of time, I feel like I put a lot of hours and effort into my game and improved every day. It just shows my consistency for X amount of time.
How did winning the Evian Championship in 2021 shape the following years?
It was a little reassuring because there was a lot of talk: “When will she win her first major?” I heard many things, but they were never to my face. They were always passing or social media or a lot of things here and there. So it was kind of a relief, a monkey off my back. I knew I had it in me, but it finally happened – like, actually getting a win in a major is really, really hard.
You always work to win majors, and your goals are very specific, so for that to be my first, it also led into my next year.
And as you learned last year at Evian, defending a championship is difficult.
oh yes It’s really hard.
Going into Pebble Beach, how do you approach trying to defend a major?
The hardest thing is doing your normal thing. Usually when you defend, you are pulled in many different directions: the media, your training, you work hard because it is a new venue and you have to do all your preparation starting from scratch.
It’s not like Evian, where I already knew the golf course and played it for years. [This year], it will be slightly different. The US Open has always meant a lot to me and being able to win it was a dream come true for me. I don’t know how it will feel driving there as a defending champion.
The wind will be a factor at Pebble Beach. You grew up in Australia and dealt with the wind. You live in Texas and deal with the wind. Does it feel like an advantage this year?
I like to play in the wind — I like a hard test of golf. I just feel like you can really use your creativity when it’s windy. Low shots are key, but it’s not always just the low shots. Will you use the wind? Will you fight the wind? There are just so many different ways that you can play in the wind. I find it more fun when it’s harder, and because it really separates who is a good hitter and who is not so good, it really divides the field. I’ve always played in the wind, so it doesn’t really feel that different to me.
There aren’t many better iron players on the planet. Do you still emphasize irons when you train and prepare, or can you afford more time for other things?
I never really felt that I was better in that aspect until I saw the statistics. yes sure my stats were better than the men, but I never really specifically worked on my irons – like, I always worked on my technique or how I move a certain way for a certain shot. But last year, it was just better than any other year, and I’m not sure what really changed. It just happened. You only work on something for so long, and then at one point, it just clicks. I probably don’t work on my swing as much right now; I am working on other parts of my game, but only because those other areas are where I would benefit the most.
You said you don’t pay attention to statistics, but you set the Open scoring record last year, earning the highest payout in women’s golf history ($1.8 million). Do you think of such superlatives?
I feel like I don’t — not as much as I should. I should probably look at it and think, “Oh, you did really well,” and then compliment myself. I just do my job, and when I’m off the golf course, I don’t think about golf.
There’s a moment in the Netflix documentary series “Full Swing” when Brooks Koepka talks about how golf is a game where, when things go well, you think you’ll never lose it, and when things don’t go well, you do. you will never find your way back. This year has not been a slippery slope for you. Where are you on that continuum?
I had an off-season, as I always would in that period of time, and then played Asia and didn’t have that good results. I was like, I’ll just take a few more weeks at home, and I missed three events and that happened to be six weeks.
Time went by so fast, and I thought that I’ve spent eight years full-throttle, I’m entitled to take that time for myself. So I did, and I feel good. I feel quite refreshed. The first week was Chevron – a major comeback during the first week – and I’m slowly working my way back into playing rhythms.
You changed caddies recently. How did it affect you on the course?
I actually learned a lot about myself. When you’re younger, you rely on your caddy a lot, and I think I did that for quite a long time, just because I was young and didn’t know what I wanted so much. Now I know myself a little better and I have matured a lot more.
Just feel like I know what I want in a caddy and everything I need from my caddy. I don’t need the peace of mind; I know what I’m doing. I just need someone who knows me well, who will be a good companion on the golf course. We spend so much time with them on the golf course, it’s like if you don’t like that person, it’s just not going to work.
This is the first US Women’s Open at Pebble Beach, somewhere that looms large in golf’s imagination. What’s the bigger milestone for women’s golf: that the Open is being played at Pebble Beach, or that last year’s British Open was at Muirfield, where women couldn’t even be members until 2017?
I’m a little mixed on that aspect. I’m really happy and grateful that we were able to play at Muirfield and have access to the golf course, and be at Pebble for the first time. I know a lot of work goes into getting those championships out there. It’s not easy – nothing is easy, right? — but I’m a little bittersweet that it took so long to get the women onto these golf courses. I really appreciate the tours and the United States Golf Association and all of our sponsors for really pushing the women’s game and the LPGA to go to all these great venues now, and I know it’s only going to get better.
But I have a feeling it will be a long time coming.
In February, you said that one of your goals was to not be completely burned out by the end of 2023. We’ve seen more and more elite athletes talk about burnout, mental illness, depression and burnout. How much of that weighs on your mind as you try to sort out when to play?
I always had a pretty full year. I played a lot of events, and that’s what I really wanted to do. I wanted to play. But now I want to play less – like, I don’t want to be so tired coming to some really important events at the end of the year.
Now my priorities are different. I don’t need to spend all my time playing every event, trying to save my card as a rookie. I’m getting old, so I want to take care of my body, take care of my mind. That’s what’s going to help me perform at my best, so I think that’s why a lot of athletes now talk about taking care of your well-being, taking care of your mind, where you’re at in your life. Just being healthy inside and out I think is really important, and if nobody’s talking about it, nobody’s really going to know about it either, so you can’t get the proper help if you need it.
Does winning two majors help you feel liberated that you can take the breaks and make the breaks — that maybe there’s a little less to prove?
Not really. I never really thought about it that way. Obviously, I’m hungry for more: I want to win the other majors, and I don’t think that’s ever going to change. And I was close to world number 1 a few times but didn’t quite cross the line. So I still have a lot to show. I have a lot of fight left in me. I still have a lot of driving to do.
You played for the first time when you were about 10. Looking back, do you wish you had started earlier? Started later?
It was a good age for me. I swam and I played golf. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I just tried a bunch of things: different sports, dance, music, everything. I was lucky that my parents let me try everything. I just found it in golf, and I really enjoyed practicing and going and seeing my friends at the golf course. I used to hit these scaly golf balls on the putting green, and it was just fun. How I got into it, I think it was the right way.
Was golf your best sport?
Well, I have pretty good hand-eye coordination, but I think because we were a really golfing family – my parents and my brother and my grandparents, they all loved to play golf, so we were always around it.
As a two-time Olympian, do you want to play in Paris next year?
That’s pretty high on my list. I think Paris will be a pretty amazing turnout. The Olympics is probably the biggest honor you can have representing your country, so I think that will be one of my biggest goals for next year.
But Pebble Beach comes first. When do you start playing it in your head?
I’m not really a watching-the-golf-before kind of girl. I saw a few holes on TV but nothing too detailed.
I like to see the course and really visualize it when I get there. I couldn’t tell if I made it on the map. I just like to internalize it when I get there.