CHARLESTON, S.C. — South Korea's Jeongeun Lee6, or, as she prefers, just plain old "Six," captured the 74th U.S. Women's Open on Sunday at the Country Club of Charleston for her first-career LPGA victory. The 23-year-old from South Korea carded a one-under 70, the only under-par round of any of the 10 players in the final five groups.
On another sweltering day in Charleston, almost every player in contention through 54 holes wilted under the major championship pressure and in difficult conditions on the baked-out, firm and fast Seth Raynor design. Those other nine players in the final five pairings played the course in a a combined 30-over par, the lowest score among them being a 73 posted by Lexi Thompson.
Amidst all this chaos and carnage, Lee played a machine-like round. After making a bogey at the par-4 first, the second-hardest hole this week only to the par-3 11th, Lee bounced back with a birdie at No. 2, then made eight consecutive pars. This weathering of the storm of sorts was enough to put her at the top of the leader board, where she would remain for the duration of the back nine.
At the 11th, which played to a field average of 3.4381 for the tournament, Lee hit what could very well be the shot of her life, her ball perfectly hitting the left shoulder of the reverse redan green, which funneled it back to inside of 10 feet. She holed the birdie, one of just 32 birdies the par 3 yielded all week, to reach seven under.
Two more birdies at the 12th and 15th holes for Lee appeared to put the tournament out of reach, but she finally tripped up late in her round. Her first real mistake came at the 16th, where her approach came up short and rolled back into the fairway off the false front. Lee hit a solid chip, but missed a short par putt. After a par at 17, she missed only her third fairway of the day at the 18th, leading to another bogey. It dropped her to six under, a score within reach only for France's Celine Boutier, who had good chances at birdie at both 16 and 17.
"I felt pretty nervous starting on the holes 16, 17, and 18," said Lee through her translator. "But I tried the best that I can. I know I made two bogeys, but I just didn't want to think about it too much. I tried the best that I can."
Boutier's short birdie effort at 16 lipped out, and her long birdie try at 17 missed as well. She hit her drive down the middle at 18, but a poor approach left her in a right green-side bunker. She wound up making double bogey, giving Lee a two-stroke victory over Thompson, Angel Yin and So Yeon Ryu, who tied for second at four under.
Lee6, who has the six at the end of her name because she was the sixth player named Jeongeun Lee on the Korean LPGA Tour, could not have picked a better week to earn her first LPGA victory. Earlier this week, the USGA raised the U.S. Women's Open purse to $5.5 million, a $500,000 bump from a year ago. That brought the first-place winner's check to $1 million, making it the second-biggest prize for a winner on the LPGA behind only the CME Group Tour Championship, where the winner receives $1.5 million.
While the win seems out of nowhere, it's not. Lee has already put together quite a resume prior to this week, with seven Korean LPGA Tour victories and a one-stroke victory at the LPGA Q-Series over Augusta National Women's Amateur winner Jennifer Kupcho this past fall. At the 2017 U.S. Women's Open, her first LPGA start, she tied for fifth, and in six LPGA starts in 2018 Lee finished T-17 or better five times, including a T-6 at the Evian Championship and a T-17 at the U.S. Women's Open. She's been on a similar tear this year, her rookie season on the LPGA Tour, with her worst finish in eight starts being a T-26.
Even with all that said, not even she saw this week coming.
"As a rookie player, I thought—I mean, I just wanted—I didn't even expect to win the tournament this fast. I think this is very lucky that I won this major championship."
Lee's journey to this point has been an incredible one. At the age of four, her father, Jung Ho Lee, a truck driver, was in a terrible car accident after he fell asleep at the wheel. The crash left him paralyzed, which made Lee's amateur career very difficult, as traveling to tournaments proved to be a challenge. The hotels that could accommodate her father, who was in a wheelchair, were much more expensive.
That's why winning the $1 million yielded such emotions from Lee, who fought back tears on the 72nd green when asked about the winning check. She spoke about her family and what they mean to her in her victory press conference.
"By looking at my family situation back then, I thought about wanting to play golf because I wanted to support my family no matter what. And after I became like successful in KLPGA for three years, thinking about that, this makes me want to play more and kind of wanted to play in the tournament enjoyable."
As for what she'll do with the new fortune, it doesn't sound like she's going to go too crazy.
"So my goal was, if I win the tournament, I can eat ramen," she said eliciting laughter. "That was my goal. If I finish the top five, I can buy shoes. But I can buy shoes and eat ramen. So it's a double."
Lee's win is the 10th for a player from South Korea in the U.S. Women's Open, all of them coming since 1998, when Se-ri Pak won at Blackwolf Run in Wisconsin.