Lee 16 Ready for Jump to Big Leagues


2007 U.S. OpenOAKMONT, Pa. -- A few years ago, Richard Lee idolized Tiger Woods.
These days, he doesn't look up to anybody.
'I'm out to beat him,' he said Wednesday.
Richard Lee
Richard Lee is the youngest player in the field at this year's U.S. Open. (Getty Images)
Spoken like a true 16-year-old. Only Lee's got the game to back up his brashness.
A year after finishing second at the U.S. Junior Amateur, he'll tee it up with Woods, Phil Mickelson and the rest of the men at the U.S. Open this week. Lee, who tied for second in his qualifying group, is the youngest player in this year's field.
'I'm not nervous at all,' he said. 'It's exciting. I earned it to come here, and I practiced really hard.'
He doesn't plan on this being a one-time appearance, either.
Though he still has two years of high school left, Lee will turn professional after the Open. He already has a relationship with Nike that he hopes will turn into a sponsorship deal, and he's ready to trade the cushy life of a teenager for the grind of tour golf.
'It's always been my dream,' he said, 'my goal.'
But going pro when he's had his driver's license for less than a year carries risks. Remember Ty Tryon? He qualified for the Honda Classic at 16 and made the cut. He briefly held the lead at the B.C. Open later that year, and earned his PGA TOUR card at Q-school.
No one's heard much from him since.
Lee's baby face gives him away, but he seems older than his 16 years, talking easily and confidently with adults twice his age. His father, Jeff, is his coach, and his parents plan to travel with him. Still, he'll be jumping headfirst into adulthood while most kids his age are still enjoying life without major responsibilities.
Under PGA TOUR rules, Lee is limited to playing 12 events -- with a maximum of seven sponsor exemptions -- until he's a full-time member. And the earliest he can become a member is when he's 18, which isn't until Oct. 29, 2008. That means for the next 16 months, Lee will have to rely on sponsor exemptions or Monday qualifying for PGA TOUR events. He can also play on the Nationwide Tour.
So while his friends back in Arizona are hanging out, going to the movies, parties and dances, Lee will be crisscrossing the country, waking up in Bridgeport, W.Va., one day, Sandy, Utah, the next.
'(Lee) is ready,' Jeff Lee said. 'He's absolutely very strong-minded, and he's listened very well. I'm sure he's going to do well.'
Besides, Lee is more concerned with what he would miss if he didn't turn pro.
'More experience in PGA golf,' he said. 'I come out here, play PGA tournaments, the greens are much faster, the rough is thicker, it's much tougher than junior golf. It's a good experience to be out here.
'This is the age I start rising up here and playing my golf.'
Though Lee still plays basketball occasionally and played soccer growing up, golf has always been his sport. He can't remember a time he wasn't playing.
Jeff Lee moved from Korea to Canada in 1972, taking up golf there at the urging of his brother. A few swings of the club, and the elder Lee was hooked. He spent a few years on the Korean tour, where his roommate was K.J. Choi.
'I wasn't that good,' Jeff Lee said. 'From my golf skills, I taught (Richard). He's better, for sure.'
Richard was only a year old when he started gripping his father's clubs. Shortly after that, he was taking swings with a plastic club. When he was just 3, Jeff Lee knew it was time for his son to have his own clubs.
'I took him to the driving range, and he was hitting the ball well,' Jeff Lee said. 'I knew he was going to be a good player, so I knew I had to teach him.'
By the time he was 14, Lee had shot a 62 in competition and won a junior world title. He played the U.S. Amateur as a 14-year-old and only missed the cut by three shots. In 2005, the Lees moved to Arizona, where Richard has won the last two state high school titles.
'He hits the ball good and now he's putting good,' Jeff Lee said. 'All the game is solid.'
But Lee said he needs more work on his putting and short game -- especially at Oakmont Country Club, where the greens are particularly tricky. After playing the back nine Wednesday morning, Lee spent 90 minutes on the practice green.
Later, he played a few holes with Choi and then hit the front nine.
His goals for the week?
'Make the cut,' Lee said. 'If I make the cut, I'll go from there.'
Make no mistake, though, that his long-term ambitions are far grander. Asked how good he hopes to become, Lee didn't hesitate.
'Bigger than Tiger, that's for sure,' he said, smiling.
If that sounds cocky, so be it.
'You have to have a good attitude playing out here,' he said. 'If you don't have the attitude that you're going to play well, you're not going to.'
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