Players rookie looked like hardened veteran all week. Then came Sunday
getty images/PGA Tour
Min Woo Lee didn’t know much about the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass before he made his Players Championship debut this week.
But he did know something.
“I just know it was scary,” Lee said Saturday evening after signing for a six-under 66 that propelled him to within two of Scottie Scheffler’s 54-hole lead. “I mean Sawgrass is scary. There’s a lot of times where people have faltered, and you don’t want to be one of those. But as long as you can control your emotions and go out there and have fun, which I did, it was fun playing really good golf.”
On Sunday, more fun looked to be in store when Lee, playing in the final pairing along with the reigning Masters champion, stuck his approach on the par-4 1st to 6 feet and poured in the birdie putt to cut Scheffler’s lead in half.
Two holes later, Lee snatched a share of the lead when Scheffler bogeyed the par-3 3rd and Lee made a scrappy par.
But then came the watery 392-yard par-4 4th. After blocking his tee shot into the right rough, Lee was forced to pitch back into the fairway and short of the water guarding the green. He had just 92 yards left to the hole for his third but his wedge shot flew just 74 yards, hit the front of the green and spun back into the water. Kerplunk.
It all resulted in a triple-bogey 7 and Lee was back in chase mode.
“It happened really quick,” he said after his round. “It’s one of those things where it’s Sunday and you just make a couple bad decisions and it all kind of falls down.”
Indeed, it was the kind of messy hole in the biggest round of his life that could have sent Lee reeling. But he maintained his composure and played the next six holes in even. Trouble was, Scheffler had started doing Scheffler things, birdieing 8, 9 and 10 to seize control of the tournament.
By the time the pair arrived on the tee at the par-5 11th, Scheffler was six ahead of Lee and four clear of the clubhouse leader, Tyrrell Hatton, who was in at 12 under. Lee needed to make something happen, and quickly. Instead, he uncorked maybe his worst swing of the week, hooking his tee shot deep into the pine trees left of the fairway.
Lee could have gone high or low with his recovery shot. He went high and clipped a branch, his ball dropping back into the barky jail from whence it came. Now hitting three, he still didn’t have a clear route back to the fairway and hit a chunky punch shot from the pine straw. His ball advanced just 36 feet — and still Lee didn’t have a clear path back to safety. He hit his fourth shot under some encroaching branches and over a bunker on the left side of the fairway. His ball barely carried the sand and settled in the left rough. After four swings, Lee still had not found the fairway.
He laid up with his fifth shot, leaving himself a 30-yard pitch, which he got up and down for a double-bogey 7.
It’s hard to win any Tour event with a pair of hockey sticks on your card — let alone the Players Championship — and such was the case for Lee on Sunday.
“It’s funny how yesterday I felt like I had the best swing in the world,” he said Sunday evening, “and then today I just felt like nothing could go right.”
Well, not nothing.
A natural showman, Lee had been playing to the galleries all week, and when he arrived on the stage that is the Stadium Course’s rowdy par-3 17th hole, Lee had one more rabbit up his sleeve: a high soft fade that touched down softly on the island green, caught the slope left of the hole and trundled to within five feet of the cup, drawing roars from the crowd.
“It’s hard to engage the crowd when you’ve just made triple bogey and double bogies and you’re trying to keep your head up high,” Lee said. “But just for a second there you just have to stop and really look at the crowd and you’re here for a reason and you’ve done really well and, yeah, that was probably the most people I’ve ever seen on one hole, on 17, so it was pretty cool.”
Lee signed for a four-over 76 to tie for sixth, nine back of Scheffler.
“I’m pretty proud of the result and I think it will take me a long way,” Lee said. “It could have been a lot worse. That’s for sure. It wasn’t easy. That’s part of it.”