NAPLES, Fla. — Fred Couples thinks Alison Lee is really good at golf. And lately, he’s more than right about that fact.
Lee has been on a tear recently, finishing solo second at the BMW Ladies Championship after falling in a playoff to Minjee Lee in the Republic of Korea, and backing that up with a win on the Ladies European Tour at the Aramco Team Series presented by PIF – Riyadh after carding rounds of 61-61-65 to beat Carlota Ciganda by a whopping eight shots. Then last week at The ANNIKA driven by Gainbridge at Pelican, Lee once again finished runner-up, this time tying for second alongside Azahara Munoz as her fellow UCLA alum Lilia Vu captured her fourth title of the 2023 season.
It's been hard for the 28-year-old to pinpoint exactly what mental switch has flipped for her over the past couple of months. She’s gone from a player that didn’t look super comfortable being in contention to someone who continues to press the gas in the big moments, and it’s that mentality shift that has proved pivotal for the LPGA Tour veteran, who is still looking for her first win after becoming an LPGA Tour member back in 2015.
It's been a remarkable transformation for Lee, one that she’s worked incredibly hard for throughout the past couple of seasons, both mentally and physically. But having a 15-time PGA Tour winner like Fred Couples send you non-stop encouragement about your game definitely doesn’t hurt if you’re looking to boost your confidence.
“(Fred Couples) has honestly been the biggest supporter and my No. 1 fan over the last couple of months,” said Lee, who met Couples at the Berenberg Invtiational, a pro-am event in New York. “Like he just was hammering into me, you need to believe you're a good player. You need to go out there and believe you're the (best) and you can do it. It was a lot of messages every day from Freddie, not going to lie.
“But hammering that into me really resonated with me. Finally in Korea, I slowly started to believe it. I have read the messages and I'm going to get emotional because he's been so supportive. To see someone like that, a legend like that watch me play golf and tell me how good I am, it's surreal to think that he's telling me how good I am. For the longest time, I didn't believe it myself.”
And that self-belief is once again proving critical for Lee this week at the CME Group Tour Championship.
After opening with a flawless 6-under 66, a round that saw her card six birdies at Tiburón Golf Club on Thursday, Lee put the pedal down on Friday in Naples, Fla. She kicked off the second round with a pair of back-to-back birdies on holes 1 and 2, quickly snagging another birdie on the par-4 4th hole. Lee then dropped a shot on No. 5 but cleaned up that mistake with a pair of birdies on holes 6 and 7, parring Nos. 8 and 9 to turn in 32.
She cooled off a bit early on the back nine, making four consecutive pars from holes 10 to 13, but dropped the hammer in her final five holes, recording birdies on 14, 15, 17 and 18 to post an 8-under 64 and hold just the third 36-hole lead/co-lead of her nine-year LPGA Tour career.
The 64 is her third-lowest 18-score on the LPGA Tour, sitting two shots behind the 8-under 62 that Lee shot on Moving Day last week at The ANNIKA driven by Gainbridge at Pelican. Her two-day total of 130 is her new career-low 36-hole score, besting her previous benchmark of 133 by three shots, and in her last 13 rounds, including her win on the LET, Lee has a scoring average 65.615, a statistic that surprised her during her post-round interview on Friday.
“It's pretty fricking good. I don't even know what to say,” said Lee, whose scoring average this season, not including this week at the CME Group Tour Championship, is 70.72. “I've just been trying my best to keep it one shot at a time, trying to play some good golf out there, and hopefully let the putts fall and let the birdies write themselves. It's been really cool to play some good golf. Been a lot of fun. That's a really good stat.”
Through two rounds this week, Couples has definitely been keeping a close eye on Lee as she has moved up the leaderboard and into contention at the CME Group Tour Championship, now having more than a good shot at the $2 million winner’s check that will be awarded on Sunday at Tiburón Golf Club.
“He's been texting me every day after the round, good job. You're so good. He always calls me Mrs. Monster. That's what he says. Hey, ‘Mrs. Monster, you made all those birdies today,’” Lee said. “He's been amazing. He's been my biggest fan over the last month. It's been really, really cool. I just look at my phone and says (Fred) Couples and I'm like, that's weird.”
With another weekend in contention on tap, Lee will once again be working to become the season’s 13th Rolex First-Time Winner as she looks to put herself in a position to chase down that elusive first victory on Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship. But no matter what happens over the next 36 holes, she has made plenty of progress throughout the 2023 season, gains that have her finally believing again that a win is well within reach and that she truly does belong among the world’s best on the LPGA Tour.
“It's been tough. It’s so weird to even think now that I'm playing this good. Just three, four months ago I would joke around how I'm only going to play for a few more years and retire. This win isn't coming,” said Lee, who has earned 20 top-10 finishes since 2015. “I've set so many goals for myself since I was a little kid, and I feel like coming on Tour was a reality check for me. I feel like it just got to my head a little bit and I kind of went into a mental spiral. I thought over and over again, I don't think I'll ever win. I don't think I'll be a top player anymore.
“For lack of a better word, it's been so much fun to be on the leaderboard and see my name again and be in contention. Just be out here and play under pressure. Now it's a different pressure. It's I'm actually nervous to make a birdie putt because I might win, it might put you in a better spot to win, versus being nervous and having pressure because I might miss the cut, or I might not make any money or might lose my card. So, it's definitely a lot more fun place to be with my game.”