Minjee Lee has spent these past few years feeling golf’s glories and agonies more than most.
She won her first major tournament at the 2021 Evian Championship, a come-from-behind playoff victory, and followed it less than a year later with a record-setting win at the 2022 U.S. Women’s Open. Then came a tie for 43rd when she tried to defend her Evian title, worries about exhaustion and a pair of frustrating finishes in the first two majors of this year.
Now ranked sixth in the world after reaching No. 2 last summer, Lee, a 27-year-old Australian, will have to conquer Pebble Beach Golf Links — the renowned course on the California coast — if she is to defend her Open title. The tournament begins Thursday.
In a springtime interview at T.P.C. Harding Park in San Francisco, Lee discussed her masterful iron play, the hazards of Pebble Beach, the evolution of the women’s game and why winning a major once, never mind twice, is so difficult.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You haven’t missed a cut at a major since 2019.
I didn’t even know.
How much of that represents a progression of your athletic talent versus your mind-set?
You’re always trying to get a little bit better each day. So for me, for my progression and not having missed a cut over that period of time, I feel like I’ve put in a lot of hours and effort into my game and improving each day. It just shows my consistency over X amount of time.
How did winning the Evian Championship in 2021 shape the subsequent years?
It was a bit of a relief because there was a lot of talk: “When is she going to win her first major?” I heard a lot of things, but they were never to my face. They were always in passing or social media or a lot of things here and there. So it was kind of a relief, a monkey off my back. I knew I had it in me, but it finally happened — like, to actually get a win in a major is really, really hard.
You always work toward winning majors, and your goals are very specific, so for that to be my first one, it led into my next year, as well.
And as you learned last year at Evian, defending a championship is hard to do.
Oh, yeah. It’s really hard.
Going into Pebble Beach, how do you approach trying to defend a major?
The hardest thing is to do your normal thing. Usually when you’re defending, you’re pulled in a lot of different directions: media, your practice rounds, you put in a lot of work because it’s a new venue and you have to do all of your prep starting from scratch.
It’s not like Evian, where I already knew the golf course and had played it for years. [This year], it will be a little bit different. The U.S. Open has always meant a lot to me and to be able to win it was a dream come true for me. I don’t know how it will feel driving in there as a defending champion.
The wind will be a factor at Pebble Beach. You grew up in Australia and dealt with the wind. You live in Texas and deal with the wind. Does it feel like an advantage this year?
I like playing in the wind — I like a tough test of golf. I just feel like you can really use your creativity when it’s windy. Low shots are key, but it’s not always just the low shots. Are you going to use the wind? Are you going to fight the wind? It’s just a lot of different ways that you can play in the wind. I find it more fun when it’s harder, and because it really separates who is a good ball-striker and who isn’t as good, it really separates the field. I’ve always played in wind, so it doesn’t really feel that different for me.
There are not many better iron players on the planet. Do you find yourself still emphasizing irons when you practice and prepare, or can you afford to spend more time on other things?
I never really felt like I was better in that aspect until I saw the stat. Yeah, sure, my stats were better than the men, but I never really specifically worked on my irons — like, I always worked on my technique or how I move a certain way for a certain shot. But last year, it just happened to be better than any other year, and I’m not sure what really changed. It just kind of happened. You just work on something for so long, and then at one point, it just clicks. I probably don’t work on my swing as much right now; I’m working on other parts of my game, but only because those other areas are where I’d benefit the most.
You’ve said you don’t pay attention to stats, but you set the Open scoring record last year, earning the highest payout in history ($1.8 million) for women’s golf. Do you think about those kinds of superlatives?
I feel like I don’t — not as much as I should. I probably should look at it and think, “Oh, you did really well,” and then compliment myself. I just do my work, and when I’m away from the golf course, I don’t think about golf.
There’s a moment in the Netflix documentary series “Full Swing” when Brooks Koepka talks about how golf is a game where, when things are going well, you think you’re never going to lose it, and when it’s not going well, you think you’ll never find your way back. This year hasn’t been a glide path for you. Where are you on that continuum?
I had an off-season, like I always would in that period of time, and then played Asia and didn’t have that good of results. I was like, I’m just going to take a few weeks more at home, and I missed three events and that happened to be six weeks.
Time went so quickly, and I was like, I’ve spent eight years going full-throttle, I’m allowed to take that time for myself. So I did, and I feel good. I feel quite refreshed. First week was Chevron — a major coming back for the first week — and I’m slowly working back into playing rhythms.
You changed caddies recently. How has it affected you on the course?
I’ve actually learned a lot about myself. When you’re younger, you rely a lot on your caddie, and I think I did that for quite a long time, just because I was young and didn’t know what I wanted as much. Now I know myself a bit better and I’ve matured a lot more.
It just feels like I know what I want in a caddie and all that I need from my caddie. I don’t need the reassurance; I know what I’m doing. I just need somebody who knows me well, who is going to be a good companion out on the golf course. We spend so much time with them on the golf course, it’s like if you don’t like that person, it’s just not going to work.
This is the first U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach, somewhere that looms large in golf’s imagination. What’s the bigger milestone for women’s golf: that the Open is being played at Pebble Beach, or that last year’s British Open was at Muirfield, where women couldn’t even be members until 2017?
I’m a little bit mixed in that aspect. I’m really happy and grateful that we were able to play at Muirfield and have access to the golf course, and being at Pebble for the first time. I know that a lot of work goes into having those championships there. It’s not easy — nothing is easy, right? — but I am a little bit bittersweet that it took this much time to get the women on these golf courses. I’m very appreciative of the tours and the U.S. Golf Association and all of our sponsors for really pushing the women’s game and the L.P.G.A. to go to all of these great venues now, and I know it’s only going to get better.
But I feel like it was a long time coming.
In February, you said one of your goals was not to be totally exhausted by the end of 2023. We’ve seen more and more elite athletes talk about burnout, mental illness, depression and exhaustion. How much of that weighs on your mind as you’re trying to sort out when to play?
I’ve always had quite a full year. I’ve played a lot of events, and that’s what I really wanted to do. I wanted to play. But now I want to play less — like, I don’t want to be as tired coming down to some really important events at the end of the year.
Now my priorities are different. I don’t need to spend all of my time playing every single event, trying to keep my card as a rookie. I’m getting older, so I want to look after my body, look after my mind. That’s what’s going to help me perform my best, so I think that’s why a lot of athletes are now talking about taking care of your well-being, taking care of your mind, where you are in your life. Just to be healthy inside and out I think is really important, and if nobody talks about it, nobody will really know about it either, so you can’t get the proper help if you need it.
Does having won two majors help you feel liberated that you can take the breaks and take the pauses — that there’s maybe a little less to prove?
Not really. I’ve never really thought about it in that way. Obviously, I am hungry for more: I want to win the other majors, and I don’t think that will ever change. And I’ve been close to world No. 1 a couple of times but not quite got over the line. So I still have a lot to show. I have a lot of fight left in me. I still have a lot of drive.
You played for the first time when you were about 10. Looking back, do you wish you had started earlier? Started later?
It was a good age for me. I swam and I played golf. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, and I just tried a bunch of things: different sports, dance, music, everything. I was fortunate that my parents let me try everything. I just found it in golf, and I really enjoyed practicing and going and seeing my friends at the golf course. I used to hit these squishy golf balls around on the chipping green, and it was just fun. The way I got into it, I think it was the right way.
Was golf your best sport?
Well, I have pretty good hand-eye coordination, but I think because we were really a golfy family — my parents and my brother and my grandparents, they all loved playing golf, so we were just always around it.
As a two-time Olympian, do you want to play in Paris next year?
That’s pretty high on my list. I think Paris will be a pretty amazing turnout. The Olympics are probably the greatest honor you can have of representing your country, so I think that is going to be one of my bigger goals for next year.
But Pebble Beach comes first. When do you start playing it in your head?
I’m not really a look-up-the-golf-course-beforehand kind of girl. I’ve seen some holes on TV but nothing too much in detail.
I like seeing the course and really visualizing it when I get there. I wouldn’t be able to tell if I did it on the map. I just like to internalize it when I get there.