CLIFTON, NEW JERSEY | Most of the time it’s a jubilee, a celebration that includes hoots and hollers and, when you have young girls around, a squeal or two. There also can be tears, joyful usually with family members nearby. In the case of the LPGA Tour, those celebrations almost always include a shower of either water or champagne as fellow players rush out to congratulate the latest winner.
But there are other times when a victor experiences a different flood of emotions, where the feelings after a win are one part exuberance and four parts relief.
That was the case on Sunday at Upper Montclair Country Club where 25-year-old Australian Minjee Lee birdied three of her last seven holes to win the Cognizant Founders Cup by two shots over Lexi Thompson and three clear of Madelene Sagstrom and Angel Yin. When the final 4-foot birdie putt fell on the last green and Lee posted an extraordinary 19-under 269 for the week on a course the caddies thought was good enough perhaps to host a U.S. Women’s Open, the major champion looked to the sky and let her shoulders sag. Finally. After four months of putting up eye-popping stats that had everyone asking, “Why hasn’t she won?” the 2021 Amundi Evian champion added her seventh career LPGA Tour title doing what she always does: throwing darts when it counted.
"So, yeah, I’m happy with where I am going into this part of the season, and quite pleased to get this win.”
The event came down to the wire. With the nines at Upper Montclair reversed for this championship, 18 was a layup par-4 that left players with an uphill shot of 100-120 yards. Leading by a shot and with a putter that had been anything but kind throughout the day, Lee needed to stick it close in case Thompson made birdie. The Aussie did just that, hitting a wedge from 109 that never left the flag and stopped just below the hole. Thompson missed a 15-footer for birdie, and Lee rolled in the shortie to widen the winning margin to two.
“I never really got a super high,” Lee said. “After I holed that last putt, I was really happy, obviously, and I have been playing really well, so I'm just proud of myself that I played four days of really good golf and I was able to fight through this round and come out with a win. I really didn't have the time to worry about what other people were doing today. I was just focused on my game and how I could hit it close to the hole to have a good look at birdie.”
That hasn’t been a problem for Lee for most of the year. In fact her approach numbers have been jaw-dropping. Coming into the week, according to the KPMG Performance Insights, Lee has led the tour in proximity to the hole from every distance. But the numbers are even better than that.
From 100 to 125 yards, Lee, before last week, hit it an average of 14 feet, 7 inches from the hole. To put that into perspective, Scottie Scheffler, the No. 1 player in the world with four wins, including the Masters and the WGC Match Play, averages about 18 feet from that distance.
But it gets better. From 125 to 150 yards, Lee averages 16 feet, 4 inches. Scheffler averages 21 feet from those same distances.
As the approaches get longer, you would expect the stats to flip. PGA Tour players often hit 7-irons from 200 yards, a distance from which a majority of LPGA Tour players are pulling off head covers. But that’s not the case. From 150 to 175 yards, Lee averages 18 feet from the hole. Scheffler hits it 25½ feet from those distances.
The next measuring block for statistics is 175 to 200 yards, a distance where Lee hits either long irons or hybrids. Still, she came into the week averaging 20 feet from that distance, a full 10 feet closer than Scheffler, who hits it an average of 30 feet from the hole from 175 to 200 yards.
Proximity from outside 200 yards is more difficult to calculate because the PGA Tour doesn’t break out those approach distances. Still, Scheffler hits it 51 feet, 2 inches from all approaches outside 200 yards. Lee averages 29 feet, 1 inch from 200 to 225 yards and 43 feet from 225 to 250, a staggering difference given the club differential between men and women.
Of course there are other variables involved – rough versus fairway, hole-location difficulty, softness of the greens – but even with those differences, the comparisons are impressive. KPMG began keeping stats for LPGA Tour players in the middle of last year, and the data-collection methodology still needs to be tested to see if there are any bugs. But how can you look at what Lee has done and not say, “Wow.”
“My irons have always been my strong suit,” Lee said in New Jersey. “I’ve been working on my putting, pairing up line and speed, and I’m quite pleased with the improvements on that front. So, yeah, I’m happy with where I am going into this part of the season, and quite pleased to get this win.”
If she gets the putter working given how close she hits it from anywhere on the golf course, Minjee Lee could be the player everyone is chasing throughout the latter half of the year.