Minjee Lee isn’t perfect. It just seems that way when it really matters.
The 22-year-old Australian overcame a couple of mild hiccups on the back nine, held off the only player who mounted any challenge and walked away with the fifth victory of her LPGA Tour career in the Hugel-Air Premia LA Open at Wilshire Country Club.
Lee shot a three-under-par 68 on Sunday to finish at 14-under 270. Sei Young Kim, who started Sunday six shots behind Lee, was the only player to provide any competition, but she could never get closer than two shots down the stretch. She shot a 66 that included a bogey on the par-three 18th and finished alone in second at 10 under.
After an impeccable front nine, Lee bogeyed the par-four 11th when she failed to get out of a greenside bunker. Then she three-putted the par-five 15th for a par that felt like a bogey. But with Kim unable to gain any ground ahead of her, Lee cruised in for the $225,000 winner’s check, her first win of the year and an expected jump in the world golf rankings from No. 4 to No. 2.
“I’ve always been pretty good at forgetting about anything and concentrating on the next shot,” she said of bouncing back from the bogey and the three-putt.
“I’m not sure if it comes naturally to an athlete, but it’s been pretty good for me.”
Annie Park (67) and Morgan Pressel (68) finished tied for third at nine under. Amy Yang shot a tournament-record-tying 64 to finish in a five-way tie for fifth at eight under, along with Gaby Lopez (66), Megan Khang (68), Jin Young Ko (69) and Inbee Park (70).
The players closest to Lee at the start of an overcast, cool day that gave way to afternoon sun couldn’t keep up with her. And those who did manage to shoot scores that might otherwise push them up the leaderboard were simply too far back to figure into the top of the leaderboard.
Their only hope was that Lee stumble or the tricky greens and lurking creek winding through Wilshire Country Club rise up against her. Those were empty hopes.
By the time Lee weaved through the crowd behind the ninth green and through the narrow, dark tunnel under Beverly Boulevard to the north half of the course and the back nine, she had built a five-shot lead. With the form she had displayed over the first nine holes, it seemed like about a dozen shots.
Lee had hit eight of her first nine greens, six of seven fairways and was clearly hitting on all cylinders with a two-under 33.
But her large lead wasn’t on her mind as she started the back nine.
“We got put on the clock on the 10th hole,” she said, referring to slow play on the front. “So I didn’t have time to think about any of that.”
Kim, playing two holes ahead of Lee, made things mildly interesting on the back, and she trailed by two shots after her third consecutive birdie on No. 14. That was as close as it got.
The question at the start was who were the likely contenders to challenge Lee.
Her playing partner in the final group, Nanna Koerstz Madsen, is a second-year player from Denmark who was in the final pairing for the first time on tour. Starting the round only a shot behind Lee, she bogeyed the first, fourth, sixth and seventh holes to fall out of the discussion and shot 76 to finish in 13th.
Inbee Park is a 19-time winner, has won seven major championships and had three top-10 finishes this season, though her final-round scoring average of 70.1 didn’t provide an indication that she’d be able to overcome her four-shot deficit.
Ko, the No. 1 player in the world who had already won twice this year, bogeyed three holes on the front nine to make overcoming her five-shot deficit untenable.
Pressel was the only other player within five shots at the start and had her best finish in almost three years, but it wasn’t nearly enough against Lee.
It turned out the only challenge came from Kim, a 26-year-old South Korean who has won seven times since joining the tour in 2015. She set a tour record for lowest 72-hole score in a win last year. Turns out, she would have needed a similar performance to win this week.