The crazy story of how a golf shop employee outside Chicago became Jeongeun Lee6's manager
NAPLES, Fla. — Had Jennifer Kim called in sick the last Thursday of June in 2018, her life would have been completely different. She wouldn’t be traveling the world, experiencing first-hand the rise of LPGA rookie of the year Jeongeun Lee6, whom she works for as her personal manager. Kim would instead probably still be working at a PGA Superstore.
But Kim did go to work that day. At the time, she was working at the Golf Center, a range, pro shop and restaurant north of Chicago, where she’d been working since playing on the golf team at, and graduating from, the University of Illinois-Chicago. She was there when Inbee Park’s husband walked in that Thursday. Inbee needed a new pair of golf shoes for the Friday round of the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship, which was being held nearby at Kemper Lakes Golf Club. Kim thought the man she was helping looked familiar.
“A coworker told me it was Inbee’s husband, and I was overwhelmed,” Kim said. She was able to keep her shock under control and find the shoes he needed.
“The next day, my swing coach gave me a ticket to the KPMG,” Kim said. “I’d never been to an LPGA tournament and had always wanted to go to one. I went by myself.”
She arrived and started walking around and not realizing that she had arrived at Inbee Park’s group. In the gallery, she saw Park’s husband again.
“I didn’t expect him to remember me, but he did,” Kim said.
Park was walking with a friend who works for the Korean talent agency, Bravo and New. They work in movies, music and sports.
“He introduced us, and we talked as we walked for like nine holes,” Kim said. “He told me to send him my resume. I didn’t expect any of that to happen, I went to watch a tournament. He said he’d get back to me, but I didn’t think he really would.”
Kim went back to her normal life. She left the Golf Center and started working at a PGA Superstore near Chicago, which she’d done while she was in high school. She worked in the apparel department and did fittings.
“I learned a lot about the golf industry by working there and at the Golf Center. I’m so grateful for those experiences,” Kim, who majored in marketing and minored in management, said.
But in November, the team at Bravo and New actually did call her, asking if she was serious about working for them. The answer, of course, was yes.
Just six months out of college, with no experience working with professional athletes, she flew to Korea and met Jeongeun Lee6, who had just won LPGA Q-Series and was poised to start her rookie year on the LPGA Tour in January. In a meeting with Lee6’s parents and members of Bravo and New, the decision was made that Kim would be Lee6’s personal manager for 2019. Lee6 had wanted a female manager, and the thought was that it would be fun for Lee6 to travel with a peer. Importantly, Kim is bilingual. She was born in Chicago, but lived in South Korea from second through sixth grade, because of her father’s business. She’s fluent in Korean and English. Lee6 is still working on mastering the English language, so having a bilingual manager was imperative.
“Just me and her went out to dinner, we felt like we should get to know each other,” Kim said. “What are the things you like to do, what don’t you like to do, what do you like to do when you travel, what do you want me to do during a tournament. We talked through it all. And we found we had really similar personalities and were on the same page about everything.”
It was the beginning of what turned out to be an incredibly successful partnership. Lee6 and Kim have traveled the tour together, with Kim sitting by Lee6’s side during every press conference, translating the questions into Korean and Lee6’s answers into English.
Kim says that the best moment of the season was in May at the Country Club of Charleston, where Lee6 won the U.S. Women’s Open.
“It was so emotional,” said Kim, who was crying herself at the press conference while translating for Lee6. “Both of us work together all the time, we’re trying to do the best as we can, just trying to enjoy the tournaments and play well, trying to get top 10s. We didn’t expect her to win that tournament. I don’t know how to describe it. Right now, it’s still emotional to think about.”
In the wake of the win, their lives completely changed. Before Lee6 won the U.S. Women’s Open, Kim says the crowds following her on-course were either small or nonexistent. Some people would ask about the number ‘6’ in her name, which came from her time on the Korean LPGA Tour (she was the sixth woman on that tour to have the name Jeongeun Lee). But no one really knew who she was. They enjoyed the peacefulness on the golf course as they flew under the radar.
That all changed after the win in South Carolina.
“People started to follow her more on the golf course and followed her on Instagram and followed her everywhere. Kids started asking for autographs,” Kim said. “It’s been very cool, it changed immediately. We’re so thankful for the support of the fans. We’ve tried to stay the same as we did things before the win. We didn’t want to change things or get greedy.”
Kim, who had never been beyond the U.S. and Korea, has loved traveling the world for LPGA Tour events. Lee6 and Kim like to find good restaurants wherever they travel and explore new cities. Shanghai stood out as a highlight. “We traveled the whole city and took a lot of pictures,” Kim said. “We found a lot of good food. We ate a lot on that trip.”
The most powerful moment of their travels that stands out to Kim was at the Evian Championship, when they took a boat ride across Lake Geneva to Switzerland and toured the Olympic village set up for the 2020 Junior Olympics.
They read about the history of the Olympics and the stories of people who had won medals. The Olympics wasn’t something that Lee6 had spoken about much, until that day. Currently, she’s ranked high enough to play on the South Korean Olympic team.
“After that, Jeongeun looked at me and said, ‘I really want to play in the Olympics.’ I told her she should. ‘If you earn a gold medal, it stays there forever. People will remember you,’” Kim said.
Being next to an athlete who could, reasonably, win an Olympic medal, in the exact moment that that athlete realizes that’s what she wants to do, was an incredible experience for Kim, who had been helping customers find the right sized golf shoes just months before.
“That was the moment that was the coolest I’ve experienced.”
The goal at the beginning of 2019 was for Lee6 to be Rookie of the Year. She wrapped that up easily. She finished the season with 10 top 10s, including the win at the U.S. Women’s Open. Looking to next year, Lee6’s goal will shift to the Olympics. That means Kim’s goals include the Olympics, too.
“My goal as a manager, I want her to be stable. Make her condition better, so she can prepare for the Olympics—physical, mental everything. It’s hard to manage a player mentally because she has to fight for herself. But I want to be by her side no matter what and support her.”
Kim’s promise to herself is to put forth all her efforts to help Lee6 show the world how passionate she is about golf, to help her become an Olympic athlete, remembered like those they read about in Geneva.
Sometimes it’s hard for Kim to believe this is where she is, and this is what she’s doing.
“I’m so grateful, that this is my life now,” Kim said. “I’d never imagined I’d come this far.”