By Peter Conroy
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. (Aug. 30, 2008)--The similarities between Danny Lee's triumph in the U.S. Amateur and Tiger Woods' victory at the U.S. Open aren't perfect, but they are an interesting study.
Both golfers were competing in arguably the most important event for their skill level. Both had injured appendages (knee for Tiger, shoulder for Lee). Both were facing off against a streaking, but relative unknown adversary (Rocco Mediate and Drew Kittleson, respectively).
The major difference was relative ease of Lee's victory, as he finished the 36-hole final match 5 & 4 while Woods needed a birdie on the final hole of an 18-hole playoff to dispatch Mediate.
Which isn't to say Lee's victory was particularly easy. After taking a five-hole lead into the afternoon 18, the Kiwi saw his margin cut to two holes after some brilliant play by Kittleson, who entered the tournament ranked 263rd in the world according to the amateurgolf.com - Bridgestone Golf Player Rankings.
He finished 2008 with 5850 points, more than a thousand more than Zach Sucher to win the amateurgolf.com Player of the Year title.
But Lee responded by playing what he called the best golf he could play, birdieing 13 of the 32 holes contested.
"It was actually kind of fun to watch," said Kittleson after the match. "He was just pouring it in."
Off the course, the high school senior was different from Woods in his candidness, and downright humorous interaction with the press.
Whereas Woods has been guarded in recent years with the media, Lee was nothing short of a cut-up, despite his somewhat halting command of English.
When asked what he thought about being paired with Tiger at next year's U.S. Open, Lee replied: "Wow, that's a special thing. (pause) I'm gonna beat him."
Bursts of laughter from the gallery.
Or what his mother had to say to him over the phone from New Zealand after he took the title.
"Oh, you know, I'm very proud of you, blah, blah blah, Mom stuff."
It was Mom stuff of a different nature that put Lee on the path to becoming the U.S. Amateur champ and the top-ranked Am in the country.
Sujin Sea, a retired golf instructor, taught her son the game at age 9 while they were splitting their time between Korea and New Zealand. He was hooked immediately.
After a solid 2007 that saw him finish 36th in the world and was highlighted by a runner-up finish at the Dogwood Invitational he rocketed up the rankings in 2008.
Spending the entire summer in San Diego with his "uncle" Rambert Sim (who is really a family friend) Lee opened the amateur season with top-10 finishes at three-straight major events, the Dogwood, Porter Cup and Northeast Am.
He hit his stride, and joined notable names such as Phil Mickelson and Ben Curtis, by winning the Western Amateur after taking medalist honors.
He followed that with a T-20th finish at the PGA Tour's Wyndham Championship, which further showed him what kind of golf he was capable of playing.
"Being there, with all those PGA pros, I learned so much," said Lee.
The coup de grace, capping off his month of incredible golf, was the victory U.S. Am victory at Pinehurst, where his match play opponents never got close.
His 3 & 2 semifinal victory over Georgia's Patrick Reed was the slimmest margin he faced. The other matches finished 4 & 3 (twice) 5 & 4 (twice) and 7 & 6.
Lee entertained thoughts of attending PGA Tour Qualifying School after graduating high school, but plans to stay amateur after his finish at the Am earned him a spot in the U.S. and British Opens as well as a likely invitation to The Masters.
"There is no way I'm going now," he said with a laugh. "I can't miss those majors, I need to play Augusta before I die."
The way his game looks nowadays, no one should be surprised if Lee's 2009 appearance in the Masters is the first of many.