She held it together until the end. Andrea Lee began 2022 carrying her own bag on the Epson Tour hoping that hard work and a start or two would be enough to earn her way back onto the LPGA Tour fulltime.
On Sunday, she became a Rolex First-Time Winner, capturing the AmazingCre Portland Classic by a shot.
“I still can’t believe it,” Lee said after firing a 66 on Sunday and enduring a champagne shower from friends.
Then she burst into tears, an emotional release after all she has endured since turning pro in late 2019.
Lee was the best amateur in the world, an All-American at Stanford who still holds the school record for most collegiate wins. She was also a stalwart on the victorious U.S. Curtis Cup team at Quaker Ridge in Scarsdale, New York.
She had everything – great ball striking, a creative wedge game, the sort of consistent putting stroke that coaches use as a model, and a flatline temperament that would make Fred Couples blush. Being a successful tour pro was supposed to be a foregone conclusion.
Then golf happened.
Lee turned pro in 2020 and had a respectable season, two top-10s and 11 cuts made. But that was the COVID season when everything rolled into 2021. Last year, she struggled, missing 10 cuts in her first 13 starts and never sniffing a top 10.
The struggles continued into the winter when she failed to advance through Q-Series, leaving her with full Epson Tour status but a questionable number of starts on the LPGA Tour. All she could do was get in where she could and hope to play well enough to reshuffle her way up the priority list.
That is exactly what happened. After winning the Casino Del Sol Classic on the Epson Tour in March, Lee got a sponsor’s invitation to play in the Palos Verdes Championship presented by Bank of America where she finished T5. That got her shuffled into a few more events, where she played well enough to get shuffled into even more. Two more top-five finishes followed, along with a slew of made cuts.
With her status firmly set, Lee moved on to the next goal, breaking into the winner’s circle, a feat she accomplished in Portland with the same aplomb she displayed throughout her amateur career. The Andrea of old was back, but with a new perspective.
“My junior career and my amateur career had always been kind of smooth sailing I would say,” Lee said. “I kind of expected a lot out of myself coming into the LPGA and turning professional. (Because of that, I) put a lot of pressure on myself to do really well right off the bat. And that wasn't the case at all. 2020 was a decent year, but then 2021 was a struggle.
“I realized it is really difficult to win out here. Everyone is such a great player. I think every single player out here has the ability to win on the LPGA Tour.”
That is a lesson not everyone can accept. Many stellar amateurs who falter early in their professional careers never recover. Grinding it out at the top level takes a grit and determination that transcends talent. Lee didn’t know that in 2020. She knows it now.
“I just learned from all those experiences last year,” she said. “And I really have grown as a golfer. I’m really proud of the way that I managed to use all those experiences to get that win today.”
She dedicated the win to her late grandfather, Min, who passed away in November.
“He always called me a champion and he always believed in me,” Lee said. “I was super grateful for him and I know that he's watching today.”
From above, Min saw what we all did: one of the most talented athletes in the world break through with the heart of a lion. And today, we all believe.