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Danny Lee hopes to avoid another major meltdown at PGA Championship

PGA Championship - Round One
Danny Lee plays his shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship on May 16.
(Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

Danny Lee has newfound distance — but can he go the distance?

That’s the big question about Lee, the 2008 U.S. Amateur champion from New Zealand who shot a 64 on Thursday, one stroke behind leader Brooks Koepka.

Lee has seen strong starts in major championships evaporate before, including when he went 68-77 on the first two days of the 2015 U.S. Open at Whistling Straits, and 68-74 at the Masters in 2016.

He believes his increased length off the tee will help sustain the kind of play that got him near the top of the leaderboard after the first round.

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“I’m definitely hitting it further,” he said. “I can carry my driver about 290, 295 in the air. That’s a huge bonus for me. And that was actually the first time I got to play in a major with this distance. I’m actually interested in myself, what I can do out there this week.”

Lee, 28, who was born in South Korea and moved to New Zealand at age 8, became the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur at 18 years, 1 month. That’s six months younger than Tiger Woods when he won it in 1994.

That didn’t guarantee Lee success as a pro. He bounced around the European Tour and the Web.com Tour and struggled to break into the top 100 in world rankings (he’s No. 119). The opportunities tend to dry up when players fall out of the top 100.

“Yeah, it’s definitely tough out here playing in the Tour golf life,” he said. “It’s not easy. Some of the top 20 guys in the world make it look easy, but it’s not always fairy tales and unicorns out here.”

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That includes a back injury in 2017 that had him contemplating a career change.

“I felt something on my back, and the only place I could go was lying on the ground,” he said. “The next morning when I got up from my bed, I could not move my legs. I never had that kind of injury before, so I was freaking out and was telling my wife, ‘OK, are we going to open up a Korean barbecue restaurant now?’ And she’s like, ‘Hell no.’ ”

In the opening round, Lee was cooking.

Bumps in the road

John Daly’s cart might have been ready to go, but he needed some time to get his own engine running.

Daly, 53, a former PGA champion who was granted a waiver to use a cart in the event because of arthritis in his knee, bogeyed four of his first nine holes before finishing his second nine in one-over. (He started on No. 10).

He finished the first round with a 75 and tied for 112th. The onetime huge hitter was a respectable 52nd in driving distance (289.6) and wasn’t horrible on the greens with 33 putts.

Daly had a better day than 34 players, among them two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson (76), and is tied with notables such as Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington.

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Best for last

Rory McIlroy wasn’t thrilled with his 72, but he wasn’t too disappointed either. It keeps him in the mix.

Considering how difficult it can be to hit out of the nasty Bethpage rough, accuracy off the tee is essential.

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“If you miss the fairway by a yard or two, it can make the difference between hitting a shot into 10 feet and having a birdie chance or having to get up-and-down from 100 yards for par,” McIlroy said. “But I did that well tonight. Hit enough fairways, felt like I hit enough greens, and, you know, hit good putts, and some days they just find a way to not go in.”

That said, he didn’t post a red number until his last hole of the day, No. 18, when he hit his approach to five feet.

“I can’t remember the last time I played a round of golf without a birdie,” he said. “I was like, ‘I better birdie this last hole.’ Thankfully, I did. It was nice to finish that way.”

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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Follow Sam Farmer on Twitter @LATimesfarmer


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