On May 28 last year Jeongeun Lee6 turned 23. Two days later, she teed off at the Country Club of Charleston, well-respected among her LPGA peers but known among all but the most ardent fans mostly for the numeral 6 attached to her name, a curiosity that looked for all the world like a typo.
That changed on June 2 when she won the 2019 U.S. Women’s Open.
By the end of the season, Lee6 was the runaway winner of the Rolex Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year, third in Player of the Year points, fourth in the Race to the CME Globe, third on the LPGA money list and sixth in scoring average. Now, at No. 10 in the Rolex Rankings, 6 as she is known to all, is a contender to be No.1 in the world.
Rarely has a player stepped from the shadows into the spotlight as suddenly as Lee6 did that week in the blistering South Carolina sun, posting rounds of 70-69-69-70 to finish, ironically, six under par. She won by two strokes over Lexi Thompson, So Yeon Ryu and Angel Yin. When she arrived at the ShopRite Classic the next week fans were yelling out to her by her numerical name.
Both by design and my nature, Lee6 has displayed the heart and mind of a champion. She committed herself to being a top player in order to support her family, which was financially challenged after her truck-driver farther, Jung Ho Lee, was paralyzed in an auto accident when she was four years old.
She attached the 6 to her name to distinguish herself from the others on the Korea LPGA who have the same name. And in both her U.S. Women’s Open victory comments and her Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year speech at the Rolex Awards dinner during the CME Group Tour Championship, the goodness of her heart poured out.
“I apologize that I cannot speak English,” she said in English after winning the Women’s Open. “I'm still trying really hard. I'm still studying for English, so next time if I win the tournament, I will start speaking English.”
She then did her interview through an interpreter. But she made good on her promise six short months later – there’s that number again – in her ROY speech at the Tiburon Resort. In two minutes and 19 seconds of pure emotion and perfect English, Lee6 delivered a major championship performance.
“I feel quite nervous speaking in English because my English is not so good,” she said, looking out at hundreds of faces. “Hopefully, you will understand me.”
Then she gave a brilliant speech in which she thanked family, friends, sponsors, competitors and the entire LPGA family for supporting her.
“To be honest, I was so scared.,” she said about her rookie year. “I was scared of being away from my parents. I was scared because I couldn’t speak any English. Most of all way I was scared of doing it alone. But I quickly realized I wasn’t alone. With the support of my family and friends I was able to pursue my biggest dream.”
The words flowed from Lee6 with the same fluidity of her flawless golf swing. She spoke with the same passion with which she played.
“The LPGA Tour is where you get to compete with the best players in the world, so being a part of it made me feel like I could take on anything,” Lee6 said. “It is an honor to compete on the LPGA Tour. I want to say thank you to the LPGA Tour for allowing me to dream big.”
As the crowd rose as one to applaud her words and her delivery of them, Lee6 broke down in tears. As Lee6 has done throughout her career, she came through when it mattered most
In 2017, Lee6 won four times on the KLPGA and backed that up with two more wins in 2018. She started to get the attention of LPGA fans when she finished T-5 in the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open and T-6 in the 2018 Evian Championship. At the end of that year, she won the LPGA Q Series to earn her Tour card for 2019.
In addition to her U.S. Women’s Open victory, Lee6 was second three times and had 10 top-10 finishes in 25 starts in 2019.
She began this year at the ISPS Handa Vic Open in Australia, where she failed to make the 54-hole cut, then was T-34 at the ISPS Handa Women’s Australian Open. That’s when the season was put on hold by Covid-19.
Because of the pandemic, the opportunity to defend her U.S. Women’s Open title has been pushed back to December at Champions Golf Club in Houston. If she does so successfully, it seems as if she’s ready to do her interview in English this time.
Asked last year what she was going to do with the $1 million first prize, Lee6 talked about her mission to support her family and then revealed her wonderfully modest personal indulgences.
“My goal was, if I win the tournament, I can eat ramen,” she said to laughter. “That was my goal. If I finish the top five, I can buy shoes. But I can buy shoes and eat ramen.”
Jeongeun Lee added the 6 to her name so that she’d stand out in the crowd. Now, the quality of her golf does that. In any language, Lee6 is a star.