Point of origin
Danny Lee found his game in New Zealand, but his birthplace is South Korea, home to this week's Presidents Cup
October 05, 2015
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Danny Lee played his first round of golf at a par-3 course in the shadow of South Korea’s Incheon City. His mother Sujin Seo, who earned money giving golf lessons, played alongside her son, who was 8 years old at the time.
“I shot like 45. She thought I had some kind of talent, which was good,” Lee deadpans.
He first picked up a club while waiting for his mother to finish giving lessons at the indoor “driving range” where she taught. The players would hit from mats into a net that hung just a few feet away.
Lee is a New Zealand resident and lives in Texas, but this week's Presidents Cup in South Korea will represent a return to his roots.
He was born in Seoul and returns to South Korea most years to visit grandparents and other family. From what he’s been told, his childhood home was just 30 minutes from Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea, the Presidents Cup’s site, in Songdo International Business District.
How badly did Lee want to be a part of the first Presidents Cup held in Asia? He played 36 events this season, the most on the PGA TOUR. He was the last of 10 players who automatically qualified (with two others chosen as Captain's Picks).
“Now I can die in peace,” he said after clinching his spot on the 12-man roster.
Lee began the 2014-15 season with two goals: qualify for Nick Price’s International Team that will compete against the United States on Oct. 8-11 and make the season-ending TOUR Championship by Coca-Cola.
Two weeks ago, he was in the field at East Lake, tying for second behind FedExCup winner Jordan Spieth. That moved Lee to ninth in the final FedExCup standings.
And now he'll be among the most popular players this week in Incheon City.
Lee, 25, was the fifth-youngest player among the 30 who qualified for the TOUR Championship. He’s not new to the scene, though. This was his seventh year as a professional. It also was his most successful, during which he displayed some of the potential displayed in a record-setting amateur career. By 18, he was the type of prodigy whose accomplishments were putting his name in proximity with Tiger Woods’.
Lee, despite all his early success, was an infamous tinkerer, though. He found professional success when he ceased experimenting and found a singular path. That’s why he credited swing coach Drew Steckel after his first TOUR victory at The Greenbrier Classic this year.
“I never really was happy with my golf swing when I was young. … I wanted to swing like Tiger Woods or Justin Rose,” Lee said after his win. “I’ve probably gone through 100 coaches. Meeting Drew Steckel was the best thing that ever happened to me”
Lee had seven top-10s this year, including the victory and two third-place finishes (OHL Classic, John Deere). He had two top-10s in his first 68 PGA TOUR starts as a pro.
Lee is one of two Korean-born players on this year's International team. His teammate Sangmoon Bae is still a South Korea resident and will begin the country’s mandatory military service shortly after the tournament.
Lee was born in Seoul but said he moved to Incheon around 4 or 5 years old. Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea is in Songdo International Business District, which is a part of Incheon. Lee stayed there until he was 10 years old, then moved to New Zealand and now plays under that country's flag.
His parents hoped the warmer climate and slower pace in New Zealand would help Lee’s father Sangjoo Lee recover from cancer in his abdomen (He quickly recovered, Danny said).
Lee’s golf game also benefitted from the move to New Zealand. His new homeland gave him the resources to appease an insatiable work ethic.
“You were never quite sure if Danny had a morning or afternoon tee time,” Dean Murphy, New Zealand Golf’s chief executive, wrote in an email response when asked about Lee. “If his tee time was noon, he’d be there hitting balls at 8 a.m. If he had a morning tee time, he would often be the last to leave in the evening.”
He first saw Lee at the 2003 North Island Stroke Play, when Lee was 12. The 72-hole event was contested over two days (36 holes per day). Lee hit 700 balls on the range two days before it started. He played a practice round the next day, then hit 400 more balls, Murphy recalled.
The hard work led to early success.
Danny Lee’s hard work pays off
When Lee won the U.S. Amateur in 2008 at 18, he broke Woods’ record as the tournament’s youngest champion. Lee also won that year’s Western Amateur, one of the United States’ most prestigious amateur events, to join Woods and Jack Nicklaus as players to win both titles in the same year. Lee sandwiched a 20th-place finish at the PGA TOUR’s Wyndham Championship in between those victories.
Early the next year, he became the youngest winner in European Tour history when he won the Johnnie Walker Classic as an amateur.
New Zealand’s windy conditions and tree-lined courses helped Lee learn to shape shots and escape trouble, he said. They were necessary skills for a player with a lashing swing and aggressive course management. Observers used words like “unpolished” to describe a player who excelled at escape shots and with the short game. He was constantly seeking ways to improve his full swing, and as golf’s young phenom, there were plenty of people willing to give advice. The humble Lee was willing to absorb it all.
New Zealanders specialize in self-deprecation, said Frank Nobilo, the Kiwi who won on the PGA TOUR and now is a Golf Channel commentator, because they’re accustomed to living in Australia’s shadow.
Lee’s jokes play well in PGA TOUR locker rooms because he specializes in that brand of humor (he also doesn't mind getting in prank wars, like the one he had with Rickie Fowler at East Lake). But it also belies a perfectionism that caused dissatisfaction with his golf game and encouraged experimentation.
“It’s like tasting cakes,” Nobilo said. “He was going to try them all.”
While winning the Johnnie Walker, Lee admired the swing of one of his playing partners and talked about wanting to emulate the player’s follow-through because it resembled Adam Scott’s.
“There are things you may like to change about the past four or five years that he might have done wrong, coaches he has gone to see,” Nobilo said. “But in the end, his talent has gotten through.”
He compared Lee to Vijay Singh because of both players’ work ethic and willingness to experiment. An “innate ability to find impact,” as Nobilo phrased it, allowed Lee to never sink too far. Players with less talent may have suffered. He played the Web.com Tour twice, but finished in the top 15 of the money list both times to regain his PGA TOUR card.
“Most people would go backwards so quickly with the wrong information,” Nobilo said. “Most people would lose heart. He’s a pretty determined guy. His capacity to work is a talent in itself.”
Lee turned pro after the 2009 Masters. After splitting time between the PGA TOUR and European Tour, he played his first Web.com Tour season in 2011, finishing sixth on the money list. He had to return after finishing 159th in the FedExCup as a rookie. He needed just one Web.com Tour season to regain his PGA TOUR card. He finished 88th in the FedExCup last year, and leapt to 9th in 2015.
“He will outwork you,” Nobilo said of Lee. “Drew has found him an avenue. You put (Lee’s) work ethic with some really good (instruction) and you can’t help but be good.”
Steckel and Lee began working together the week after Lee finished second at the 2014 Puerto Rico Open. Steckel is a Mac O’Grady disciple who has a handful of PGA TOUR students after helping Jason Gore return to the PGA TOUR after a five-season absence.
Steckel had observed Lee and remembers thinking, “This is pure, raw talent. He’s unbelievably talented. He just needs some direction, some guidance in how to get there.”
Steckel’s goal wasn’t to help Lee reclaim the swing that led to Lee’s amateur success, though.
“As an amateur, he was a hard worker and he was so talented,” Steckel said. “He wasn’t that technically sound as an amateur. He was just really good.”
Lee’s long, upright swing led to inconsistent driving, Steckel said. He’s helped Lee have better control of the clubface and reduce its rate of closure through impact. Lee has noticed the difference. He improved from 126th (-.215) to 66th (.243) in strokes gained: tee-to-green this season, an improvement of nearly a half-stroke per round.
“It’s always a lot easier when you don’t think about your swing on the first tee,” Lee said. “It’s like, ‘Oh my God, where is this thing going to go?’ It’s the worst feeling ever, but I haven’t had that for a while, so I’m very happy with it.”
And very happy with the fruits of his labor, including a return to his homeland.
Danny Lee’s journey to the PGA TOUR