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SportsSeptember 29, 2015

Golf: Danny Lee – Not Yet the Champion of the World. But Not Far Off

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Scotty Stevenson on Danny Lee’s rise from naive battler to the cusp of greatness on the PGA Tour.

Danny Lee finished tied for second yesterday at the PGA Tour Championship at the East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, Georgia, but maybe it is more correct to say that Danny Lee was the biggest winner of them all at the toughest tour’s concluding event.

Behind Danny Lee on the course yesterday were some of the tour’s biggest names – well, most of them really – and none hit as many birdies as Lee in the fourth and final round. He hit seven in total, four of them in a faultless front nine.  He bogeyed the tenth and birdied the twelfth. He bogeyed 13 and then birdied the next two. He was relentless in his climb up the leaderboard, and but for a couple of lapses, may well have had second all to himself.

It would have been a miracle to catch Jordan Spieth for outright victory. Spieth was busy turning a Swede into Swiss cheese in the final pairing. Spieth is extraordinary to watch, not just for his prowess with the clubs but for the fact he can completely mind-hump his playing partner. On this occasion it was perennial runner up Henrick Stenson who got owned by Spieth. Tiger Woods used to mind-hump other players, back before he literally humped a cocktail waitress.

This was all going on after the fact for Danny Lee, however. He carded a 5-under 65 (only Dustin Johnson scored lower all day) and made his way to the clubhouse to wait on the final outcome, which was of course to end up tied for second alongside the fast-finishing Justin Rose and the crumbling, shambling, stumbling Stenson.

Spieth was the biggest story of the day, but Spieth’s remarkable final round was not unexpected (and, let’s be honest, neither was the capitulation of Stenson). What was unexpected was to see the name Danny Lee right behind him, when other names – much bigger names – slipped off the pace. Names like Paul Casey and Zach Johnson and Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy, who all went into reverses of varying speeds and distances, and names like Matt Kuchar and Jason Day who made no further progress from their overnight position, which was the same as Danny Lee’s.

Lee marched onwards and upwards, his final round perfectly mirroring his Big Year On Tour. If it weren’t for that other great golfer out of New Zealand right now, one Lydia Ko, Lee’s story would be even more remarked upon.

Back in December, 2011, I interviewed a 21-year old Danny Lee after he first gained his PGA Tour card. He had battled away in the Nationwide Tour, that grim and gruesome Q School that more resembles Tin Cup than the FedEx Cup, and he had prevailed. It was the Danny Lee way, then and now – to graft it out, to play more tournaments, to give himself more opportunities than anyone else.

At the time he said. “I feel I have achieved a very big part of my goal for the year, but my goal was to gain my PGA Tour card and keep my European Tour card. I’ve nailed one, now I need the other.”

One week after we spoke, he nailed the other. It is that tenacity that has been a hallmark of Danny Lee’s career. That has only increased as his confidence has grown on tour. Something else: tenacity has filled in all the places where Lee used to keep his naivety and petulance.  Gone are the early days of course walk offs. Danny Lee doesn’t need to skulk off the greens today. He can march off as the equal of anyone on the tour.

Danny Lee jumped from 19  to 9 in the FedEX Standings on the back of what happened at East Lake, and on the back of what happened all season. Especially in the last few months: a maiden Tour victory just reward for a man who has given himself more chances than anyone else to gain tour points and cheques. One look at the top 100 in the rankings will tell you all you need to know about Danny Lee: he plays more events than anyone else.

Tenacious Lee.

When Danny Lee finished second in Atlanta yesterday he proved his late season form was no flash in the pan. His decision to turn pro in 2009 may have been more impetuous than intuitive, but six years later, he is finally making good on a promise made – to himself, to his family and to the people who have long backed this remarkable talent.

He was the biggest winner yesterday at East Lake, because he had the most to gain. Likeable Danny Lee: still looking for a Missus, tipping in birdies, and up there with the best golfers on the planet.Danny. Not quite champion of the world.

But not far off either.

The Spinoff Sports is brought to you by PGA Tour Live, New Zealand’s home of the PGA, LPGA and European Tour golf.

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