[CURVEBALL INTERVIEW] Lee Jeong-eun stays cool and consistent under pressureCURVEBALL INTERVIEW
Over the next few months, the Korea JoongAng Daily will meet with athletes from across the sporting world to discuss how they got their starts and earned their fame as well as their lives on and off the field.
This week’s interview is with professional golfer Lee Jeong-eun.
Lee Jeong-eun is a common name across Korea, and the KLPGA Tour is no exception. When world No. 10 Lee Jeong-eun joined the Korean Tour in 2016, she had to add the number six after her name as there were already five other Lee Jeong-euns on the Tour.
She may not have liked it at first, but six is now part of Lee's persona and has become her lucky number.
Now in her fifth year as a professional golfer, Lee believes that she hasn’t had a slump yet.
“After I went pro, I don’t think I've had a slump,” Lee says. “Just because I didn’t win in my first season, I never considered that a slump because I won the Rookie of the Year award. Throughout the five years, I think I’m playing well enough.”
Lee started playing golf after her father was in a tragic car accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. To help her family out, she started playing golf.
Lee first saw a golf club at her aunt and uncle’s house, when she was about five years years old.
“After my dad’s accident, I was raised by my aunt and uncle,” Lee says. “My uncle played golf. So when I was at my aunt’s house, I saw my uncle’s golf clubs. That was the very first time I saw golf clubs.”
It was around second grade in elementary school that Lee started training. The decision to start training wasn't hers, she says. Instead, her father and coach forced her to give the sport a try, and initially she didn't enjoy it at all. It wasn’t until the last year that Lee has really started to find golf fun. She says that the real charm in golf is that you never know what’s going to happen.
“In some sports, there’s a higher chance of the leader winning in the end,” Lee says. “But in golf, even if you’re a top ranked player in the world, the 100th ranked player could win the tournament. There are a lot of variables. I think that’s the real charm of the sport.”
Lee says this unpredictability is one of the reason fans like the sport. Before she realized this, Lee says that golf was just a chore for her.
“Before, I didn’t know the real fun of the sport, so for me, it was really boring and I was forced to just play,” Lee says. “Now that I found the charm of the sport, I’m having fun [playing golf].”
Lee didn't feel any attachment to the number six after her name until her second season on the KLPGA, when she picked up her first win with three rounds of 66. Since then, she says that the number six has become a big part of her life.
The name of her fan club is “Lucky Six,” and Lee is often known as “Hot Six,” a nickname given to her by fellow LPGA Tour player Kim Sei-young.
“She told me that I was hot and that’s how my nickname become Hot Six,” Lee says. “Before that, I was just Lucky Six, my fan club’s name."
Lee learned golf in elementary school but it wasn’t until the ninth grade in middle school that she started competing in tournaments.
Despite the late start compared to other players, Lee quickly proved she had what it takes to go pro. She earned a spot on the national team in 2015 and managed to win a gold medal at the 2015 Summer Universiade that same year. Just a few months later, Lee joined the KLPGA Tour after playing in the Jump and Dream Tours.
In her rookie season, Lee didn’t pick up any wins but she showed consistency, making 26 cuts out of 28 tournaments.
But that was only the beginning. In the 2017 season, as the reigning Rookie of the Year, Lee proved it wasn’t just luck. By winning a total of four tournaments in 2017, she ended up sweeping the year-end KLPGA Tour’s award ceremony with six different awards, including Player of the Year, money ranking and scoring average.
In the 2018 season, although Lee was still a full-time member on the KLPGA Tour, she traveled back and forth to compete in Korea and in the United States. Doing so allowed her to compete in less KLPGA Tour events, but she still managed to pick up two wins.
Once the 2018 season ended, Lee won the LPGA Tour’s Q-series, giving her full-time status on the U.S. Tour.
Despite it being an amazing opportunity, it wasn’t an easy decision for Lee.
“Firstly, I couldn’t speak English,” Lee says. “When I played golf, my goal wasn’t [joining the] LPGA Tour. It was a goal that just came up abruptly. So it was hard to make the decision right away. I wasn’t in a position to just go to the United States with a comfortable mindset.”
Since nothing was prepared at the time, Lee hesitated. But ultimately she decided she wanted to play on the LPGA Tour.
She could’ve registered her name as “Lee Jeong-eun,” but she once again added her signature six after her name as it has now become her lucky number.
As a 2019 LPGA Tour rookie, she says that she wasn’t that nervous in her very first tournament on the very first tee, because there was no pressure on her as a rookie. While she received a lot of attention on the KLPGA Tour, when she went to the LPGA, she was barely visible until her first victory.
“To be honest, rookies don’t know anything,” Lee says. “So we’re fearless. We just play without knowing the exact situation. I think that’s how I was.”
Perhaps, being fearless may have helped Lee’s performance. Her consistency continued in her LPGA rookie year, finishing third on the official money ranking and being named Rookie of the Year. What made her really standout in the world of golf was her first LPGA victory at a major tournament, the U.S. Women’s Open.
Behind the victory, Lee once again mentioned that it was possible because she was a rookie.
“Sometimes, scenes from the U.S. Women’s Open are being televised, and when I watch it, I think it was possible because I was a fearless rookie,” Lee said. “Normally, when you look at it, Korean golfers win the U.S. Open when they’re somewhat new on the LPGA Tour. I think it’s possible because we don’t know how hard [it is] and how much pressure [there] is to win the U.S. Open. We just play without knowing all that, and I think I was like that too.”
Lee says that rather than winning it for the first time, she believes that it’s harder for a player to win it again later in her career, like Park In-bee.
But Lee’s victory was quite an impressive one, as she became only the 19th player on the LPGA Tour history to win the U.S. Women’s as her first victory.
“I was nervous at the U.S. Open but it wasn’t like my hands were shaking because I was leading by three shots,” Lee says. “Even if I made a mistake, I had some breathing room. But if I was only leading by a shot or two at the U.S. Open, then I would have been super nervous.”
In addition to a major victory, Lee also had a shot at winning her second tournament at the LPGA Mediheal Championship in May. She got to the sudden-death playoff against Kim and Bronte Law of England. But since she wasn’t prepared for that situation, she said it was more of her fault mentally, rather than getting nervous about her first playoff on the LPGA Tour.
“At the time, rather than nervous, I wasn’t ready mentally at all,” Lee says. “A week before that, I competed in Korea, and I competed in that tournament while still jet lagged. I competed when I wasn’t at my best condition and when I wasn’t hitting the ball well. I was just satisfied about the fact that I was heading to the sudden-death playoff."
When athletes head to a different country, they tend to require some time to adjust to the new environment. Lee, didn’t seem to have that problem.
Lee credits her manager, who is also her translator, for helping her with the language barrier, as well as her own strengths to sleep anywhere and eat pretty much anything.
“Rather than adjusting to golf, it’s more important to adjust physically,” Lee says. “I sleep well, and my manger helped me with the language. Since I was getting help from all those things, I think it made it easier for me to adjust.”
However, she did have some difficulty. As Lee and her manager still haven’t found a home, they had to carry all their stuff when traveling.
“We had to carry all our stuff and they’re just really hard to carry with just two women,” Lee says. “It was difficult, but it was fun.”
But compared to legendary golfer Pak Se-ri, who had to travel alone and do everything herself, Lee considers herself blessed.
Golf without the fans
When the KLPGA Tour restarted with the 42nd KLPGA Championship teeing off on May 14, Lee also got to experience playing golf on an empty golf course without a single fan.
“I think there’s a positive and negative,” Lee says. “When there’re a lot of people out there, it’s hard for the players to move and takes longer. But on the other hand, it was a little boring. When I hit a good shot or make a birdie, the cheer and the loud screaming gets me going.”
Having competed in hundreds of tournaments by now, Lee says that she doesn’t get nervous on the first tee. In fact, she tries not to care about the first nine holes at all, instead concentrating on the back nine.
“In the first half, I don’t really care but once I get to the back nine, I start to care about it,” Lee says. “The reason why I don’t get nervous in the beginning is because I don’t get nervous at all in the first nine holes. But as I play, I get more nervous. I always focus more on the last three holes of the game.”
Lee believes that the second half of the round is more important as she can make up for the bogeys she made in the first nine. But at the same time, she gets more nervous because the more holes she plays, the less holes she has left to make up her score.
“Even if I don’t play well in the first nine, I strongly believe that I can change things up in the back nine.”
“I break it down to three holes,” Lee says. “If I make pars in two of them and add a birdie, then that will be six under-par.”
Now just 23, Lee still has a long career ahead of her — she hopes to make it to 10 years on the pro circuit.
In the short term, she hopes to compete at the Olympics. This could also count as a long term goal as she believes that even if she can’t make it in the upcoming Games, she'll have more opportunities later in her career."
“Even if it’s not a gold medal, I want to compete,” Lee says. “If I’m thinking about playing on the Tour for 10 years or more, I will have about three chances [to compete at the Olympics]. Within that time, I’m going to work hard to win a gold medal.”
When she finally does retire, Lee hopes to be remembered as a consistent player throughout her career.
Until then, or until the LPGA Tour restarts, Lee will continue her season on the KLPGA Tour by competing at the eighth E1 Charity Open in Icheon, Gyeonggi, starting from May 28 to 31.
BY KANG YOO-RIM [firstname.lastname@example.org]