PINE NEEDLES, N.C. — A lasting memory from the 2021 U.S. Women’s Open is that of Lexi Thompson losing a five-shot lead down the back nine at Olympic Club, causing her to miss out on a second major title and her first U.S. Women’s Open championship in 15 starts.
“I always say there’s really no feeling,” Thompson said. “You’re always learning. Every time I tee it up, there’s something to be processed, to learn. Yeah, it didn’t go my way. It was frustrating, but it happens. I’m here.”
Thompson wasn’t the only past major champion to let a five-shot lead slip in nine holes on the Sunday of a major championship last year.
Heading into the final round of the Amundi Evian Championship in July, Jeongeun Lee6 led the pack by five shots despite experimenting with changes to her backswing in the two months leading up to the tournament. Lee6 unraveled early that Sunday, shooting a four-over par 39 on the front nine and making room for Minjee Lee to catch her with a three-under 32.
Lee6 fought back into contention with three birdies in a row to close her final 18 and force a playoff with Lee. That’s when Lee6 took a swing she still wishes she could have back.
Setting up for her second shot on the playoff hole from 181 yards out in the center of the fairway, Lee6’s five iron found the water in front of the par-5 18th green, sinking any hope of a second major title. After Lee6 missed a par putt, her final opportunity to put pressure on Lee, the Australian completed the seven-stroke comeback to win her first major championship.
“I didn’t want to remember that shot, that second shot. It’s not easy,” Lee6 said. “I can’t do nothing, so I just practice.”
Morgan Pressel, a major champion herself and witness to two five-shot collapses last summer, put Lee6’s performance at Evian into perspective that day.
“It’s just not easy to play under major championship pressure with a five-shot lead,” Pressel said. “Everyone expects you to win, you expect yourself to win, and when things start going sideways, you get tight and tense, and we saw that from Lee6 today.
“The way she battled back, even to get into this playoff, she has to be proud of herself because she showed a lot of heart today.”
From there, Lee6 took about a month to reset and spend time with friends, family and coaches. Her mental coach reinforced the positives from the runner-up result, notably how well she’d played while working on her swing.
“I won U.S. Open, so you have a lot of talent,” Lee6, the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open champion, said her mental coach reminded her. “You have talent, trust myself, just keep going.”
2019 #USWomensOpen champion Jeongeun Lee6 with a beauty of a shot at @TheOlympicClub's iconic par-3 8th hole. pic.twitter.com/sVkVNdhySI— U.S. Women's Open (USGA) (@uswomensopen) June 5, 2021
2019 #USWomensOpen champion Jeongeun Lee6 with a beauty of a shot at @TheOlympicClub's iconic par-3 8th hole. pic.twitter.com/sVkVNdhySI
The South Korean continued to focus on getting her hands higher in her backswing during the time she spent away from the tour. And her team reminded her that, with her talent at age 26, she’d have more opportunities to win as long as she kept working on her game.
Once Lee6 let the playoff shot go, the consistency she showed during her 2019 Rookie of the Year campaign returned. She rattled off three straight top-10 finishes from September through early October, and concluded the year with a T-15 at the CME Group Tour Championship.
After getting in more swing training in Palm Springs during the offseason, Lee6 started the 2022 season again with three top-10 finishes in a row from February through March. Even after missing the cut at the Chevron Championship and failing to advance out of pool play at the Bank of Hope LPGA Match Play last week, Lee6 said her backswing feels much better now than it did a year ago.
Lee6 brings her improved swing to what’s arguably been her best tournament on the LPGA circuit. In five career starts at the U.S. Women’s Open dating back to 2017, she’s hoisted the Harton S. Semple Trophy in 2019, finished in the top-6 in 2017 (T-5) and 2020 (T-6), and posted a T-17 finish in 2018 and a T-12 at Olympic Club last year. The challenge the USGA presents with its tournament every year brings out the best out in Lee6.
“I like tricky golf courses because easy golf courses, we have to make a lot of birdies. Difficult course, we just play for par. If we have chance to make birdie, I like that. I like that playing,” she said.
“That’s why U.S. Open, a lot of majors, that’s why I like it.”
Lee6 has a chance this week to become the first player to win two U.S. Women’s Opens in a four-year span since Karrie Webb won back-to-back titles in 2000 and 2001. With much attention being paid to Thompson and whether she can rebound from last year’s collapse, Lee6 will look to apply the patience she learned across the Atlantic Ocean to another winning campaign at the U.S. Open.
“I need to just wait for my second win,” Lee6 said. “I think this year, if I try my best, I am going to have a chance.”
Kent Paisley is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering golf and the LPGA. He also contributes to Golf Digest. Follow him on Twitter @KentPaisley.