Korea’s Lee embracing the pressure as he chases historic three-peat
By Chuah Choo Chiang
It isn’t very common to find your name in golf’s history books alongside greats such as Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Korea’s K.H. Lee holds the honour following back-to-back triumphs at the AT&T Byron Nelson last year, which made him only the fourth player to successfully defend the historic tournament which dates back to 1944.
This week, Lee gets another crack to play his way into another page of the PGA TOUR’s list of chronicles.
Securing a three-peat, or winning the same tournament in three successive years, is such a rare occurrence on TOUR that only three golfers in the last 40 years have achieved the feat. American Steve Stricker was the last man to do so in 2011 at the John Deere Classic which he also won in 2009 and 2010.
Australia’s Stuart Appleby was victorious at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in 2004, 2005 and 2006 while the one and only Tiger Woods, amazingly secured the three-peat at six different tournaments beginning with the Memorial Tournament (1999, 2000, 2001) during the heights of his golfing prowess.
Lee, 31, likes his chances after dominating at TPC Craig Ranch over the past two seasons where he is an astounding 51-under-par, which is eight shots lower than the next best golfer over the same duration.
He is undaunted of chasing more golf history.
“I always have great memories here, and so lucky for the win last year. 9-under par on the last day, and then a really cool experience for me,” said Lee, who is ranked 44th in the world. “Honestly, very good pressure for me. I’m very thankful for that opportunity … (try to be) three times in a row champion. I’ll try my best. If that happens, it’s really cool.”
TPC Craig Ranch has often been a birdie fest which fits Lee’s game to a tee. A total of 2,228 birdies and 104 eagles were recorded at TPC Craig Ranch in 2022, the most of any course on TOUR last season. Lee has made birdie or better on 81.3% of the par-5s in the past two years and is 27-under on those holes, the second lowest amongst the field. However, for this year’s tournament, the par-5 547-yard 12th hole has been converted to a par-4 challenge measuring 493 yards.
With generous fairways at the Tom Weiskopf-designed layout, Lee loves to open up his shoulders with his driver and his natural attacking flair then takes over. “I like this golf course. Course shape a little wide, and I like to try hard with my driver, so hit driver harder. I like it,” said Lee, who defeated home-town hero Jordan Spieth by a single shot last year.
“When I’m here, my putting is really good and I have confidence here, so that is key for me.”
Amongst the strong continent of Korean stars on TOUR who include Sungjae Im, Tom Kim, Si Woo Kim, Byeong Hun An and S.H. Kim, Lee has a quiet confidence about him and his own abilities. He also prides himself as the self-proclaimed “Sexiest Golfer on Tour” title.
He enters the week with his confidence restored after finishing tied eighth at the Wells Fargo Championship last weekend, which was his first top-10 since the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii in January.
A big lift has come from a decision to start working with swing coach Grant Waite, who operates in Orlando where Lee is based in the U.S. with his young family. A two-week break before the Wells Fargo Championship also allowed Lee to focus on his putting technique where ranked third in Strokes Gained: Putting last week as opposed to his current season-rank of 62nd position.
“A couple of months ago, I struggled with putting, but I think last week it was getting much better. I have confidence for putting and irons, so I think I’m ready for this week,” he said. “A lot of good memories. When I stand on No. 1 tee or No. 10 tee (in practice), it’s a lot of good memories here, and then a lot of confidence for me. I’m more confident than before. In 2021, feels like first win is very hard. Hopefully good result this week.”
As part of his defending champion’s benefits, Lee enjoyed a trip earlier this week to McKinney Hat Company, which has a partnership with the tournament to produce a customised cowboy hat for the AT&T Byron Nelson champion. He walked out of the store looking very much like a Texan cowboy, and with an historic three-peat firmly in his sights.
Come Sunday, Lee hopes to be the last man standing again in what is poised to be another exciting showdown against the likes World No. 2 Scottie Scheffler and his dream would be to see his daughter, Celine Yuna, running up to him on the 18th green. “Yuna walks and runs well now, so if I make the winning putt, I hope she runs and hugs me. I’ll be so happy,” he said.
(The writer is senior director, marketing and communications – APAC, for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.)