Because of the lack of competitive golf due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lee was having a “tough time” adjusting to life without the ability to “continuously do well” in the sport.
And ahead of the showdown with two of the world’s 10 best golfers, Lee again sought advice from Song-Hee.
“She told me that I did well in everything I can do, so just show everything I had in the playoff. I think that helped me to get comfortable.”
After winning the ANA Inspiration thanks to a six-foot birdie on the first playoff hole while her competitors floundered, the 29-year-old Lee’s emotion wasn’t immediately one of elation. In fact Lees reveals she “didn’t feel anything.”
“Instead, I thought about the hard times I’ve been through,” she explained. “I was happy, but I recalled memories of the tough times more than the happiness of winning. It was my first time crying after winning.
‘It’s crazy!’ Until a month and a half ago, I told her [Song-Hee] that I don’t want to play golf because I was too exhausted.
“Even just a month-and-a-half ago, you used to say this. This is impossible!’ She couldn’t believe it as well. I changed in a month! I changed after struggling for three years, not playing well, so she said: ‘This is really crazy! You’re mad!'”
Prior to the ANA Inspiration, Lee’s last win on the LPGA Tour had come at the Kia Classic in 2017. Since that win, she had finished in the top 10 just five times.
According to Lee, she didn’t prepare “anything differently” for her ANA Inspiration win.
“It is a major competition, but for me it was more of a testing opportunity to show what I had practiced with Song-Hee. It is a major, but I participated as if it’s not a major. I think I participated to test my shots.”
Lee’s preparations were also unsettled when her usual caddie, Duncan French, discovered he wouldn’t be able to obtain a visa to travel to the US from his native New Zealand.
While she used the expertise of caddie Matt Gelczis — who joined her by jumping into the iconic Poppie’s Pond as is customary after winning the ANA Inspiration — Lee still leant on French’s advice from afar.
“He contacted me after the second round. He told me that I was doing well and gave me a lot of advice. I told him I’d like for him to get here ASAP. I kept telling him: ‘I wish you were here; when will you get here?'”
Using the environment
Looking back on the ANA Inspiration, Lee thinks her play initially had suffered by her getting ahead of herself.
“Until the secod round … I tended to focus more on the score than what I had practiced. I think I was getting eager to win.”
But having spoken to Song-Hee back in South Korea, she was able to relax more and play her natural game which enabled her to have the excellent final day.
When she started the final day two shots behind Korda and Henderson, the South Korean also felt as if the pressure was off. While others faltered, Lee chipped in a remarkable three times during her final round, including on the final hole to qualify for the three-way playoff.
Her final hole chip didn’t come without controversy though.
While usually the 18th green would be surrounded by onlooking fans, with people prohibited from attending because of the coronavirus pandemic, a large blue wall took the place of those spectators instead.
Lee’s approach to the final green would have normally sailed into the water over the green, but instead, she purposely played her shot off the wall so that it stopped just a few feet off the putting surface.
She chipped in from there, qualifying her for the playoff. And Lee says that hitting the ball against that wall was something that she practiced after seeing other players do it.
“I think every player used that wall. I had heard that you can get a drop when the ball lands near the wall. All the players that I played with in the first and second round were hitting the ball towards the wall, so I thought I could do it as well.”
Even after Lee had chipped in to cap a final-round 67 and give her the clubhouse lead, Korda had still yet to finish the final hole. Despite having finished so strongly, Lee was convinced she’d end up in second place.
“Going into the 18th hole, I set my mind to at least finish second or third. I hit an eagle at the 18th hole, but I still didn’t expect to win, because I thought Korda was going to finish with a birdie without a doubt.
“I was thinking that finishing second is still a good result. Because Korda can hit long-range, I expected her to easily hit a birdie.”
But Korda had to settle for par on the par-five 18th, forcing the playoff. For Lee, the playoff was where she thrived.
“Actually, I was more comfortable in the playoff than the rest of the final round. In fact, I think I showed all the performance I had at the playoff. I did a comfortable swing that I couldn’t do during the final round. I was just more comfortable in general.”
Now Lee is gearing up for the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Aronimink Golf Club in Pennsylvania, the season’s third major championship. She has twice finished in the top 10 at the tournament, most recently in 2019.
And having won the first major of her career, Lee has regained her passion for the game.
“I think I gained more confidence after winning. Also, I’m enjoying golf now. I think it [the win] turned everything opposite. I think I kind of know how to play golf now. Prior to this, I didn’t know how and what to do, but now I have the feeling I know what to do.”