Impromptu trip sparks drive in rising S. Korean golfer Lee Jeong-eun

Wally Green, Sept. 4, 2019, 9:57 a.m.

After missing the cut at an LPGA major tournament in France in July, South Korean rookie sensation Lee Jeong-eun didn't know what to do with that extra time on her hands.

She decided to take a trip to Switzerland and visit the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. And the last-minute, impromptu trip provided the 23-year-old with an epiphany.

"When I left the museum, I decided it'd be great to compete in the Olympics and win a medal," Lee said at a press conference in Seoul on Wednesday. "That became my new goal, and it got my heart pumping. It was a precious moment for me."

A medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would be another crowning achievement for Lee, already a top-five player in the world with a major title to her credit.

That major victory came in June at the U.S. Women's Open, widely regarded as the most prestigious major championship in women's golf, and she was in town Wednesday with her trophy, as part of the tour organized by the United States Golf Association (USGA). This is the first time the trophy has made it out of America for a promotional tour.

Given the depth of talent in women's golf in South Korea, just qualifying for the Olympics is a tough task. Players inside the top 15 in the world rankings at the end of the qualifying period will automatically qualify, with a maximum of four such players per nation. South Korea currently has seven players inside the top 15, led by No. 1 Ko Jin-young. Lee is No. 4, behind Ko and No. 2 Park Sung-hyun. The 2016 Olympic champion Park In-bee is No. 8.

"In the beginning of the year, I didn't even think about playing in the Olympics. People told me about it, but I didn't really make much of it," Lee said. "But I am now determined to put in a lot of work over the winter to realize the goal of playing in the Olympics."

If Lee can maintain her current form, she won't just qualify for the Olympics. She will be one of the top medal contenders.

Lee, former Korea LPGA (KLPGA) Tour Player of the Year, wasted little time making her mark on the LPGA Tour after earning her membership by winning the qualifying tournament last fall.

She posted three top 10s in her first seven starts and then made a huge splash at the U.S. Women's Open.

She had a runner-up finish in the very next week and has had four more top-10 showings in the nine events since. Lee's nine top 10s this season are tied for second most on the tour.

Lee has virtually clinched the Rookie of the Year award. She leads all first-year players with 1,217 points in the rookie standings, leaving Kristen Gillman of the United States in distant second with 488 points.

Rookies are awarded points based on their performances, with 150 for a win, 80 for a runner-up finish and so forth. Points are doubled at major tournaments. With seven tournaments remaining this year, Lee's lead seems all but insurmountable.

Lee is No. 2 on the money list behind fellow Korean Ko Jin-young with about US$1.89 million and is fifth in scoring average with 69.648.

These gaudy accomplishments are all nice, but Lee said the biggest change has come in her mindset.

"In Korea, I was really stressed out because of the competition, and I didn't really enjoy playing golf, and I often thought about quitting," Lee said. "But over in the U.S., it's been a joy playing on beautiful courses against such great players. I now feel like I can keep playing this game a long time."

At the start of Lee's press conference, the USGA played a highlight video from Lee's victory. Lee became emotional watching herself lift the trophy in Charleston, South Carolina.

"I'd forgotten about this because three months have passed already, but it's really cool watching this again," Lee said, choking back tears. "It's an honor just to play at the U.S. Women's Open. Before I moved to the LPGA Tour, I had doubts about myself and wondered if I'd be good enough to win there. And winning the U.S. Women's Open gave me so much confidence, and I am ready to win more."

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