PINEHURST, N.C. - His whirlwind month complete, Danny Lee finally has a few days off. Now the carefree 18-year-old has time to reflect on his latest accomplishment: Outdoing Tiger Woods.
Lee became the U.S. Amateur's youngest champion Sunday, supplanting Woods by holding off Drew Kittleson 5 and 4.
One month to the day after his 18th birthday, Lee frittered away most of a 6-hole lead before regaining control with a string of birdies midway through his second trip around Pinehurst's No. 2 course. He capped his 11th consecutive day of competition by sinking a 30-foot birdie putt on the 14th, dropping his putter and thrusting his fists into the air in celebration.
"I don't think I could play better than this," Lee said. "Perfect golf."
Lee, who is six months and 29 days younger than Woods was when he won the first of his three Amateurs in 1994, joined 2005 U.S. Open winner Michael Campbell as New Zealanders to claim championships at Donald Ross-designed No. 2 and became the fourth foreign-born Amateur champion in six years.
The victory gives him exemptions into the U.S. and British opens, a probable invitation to The Masters and a 10-year exemption into the U.S. Amateur, as long as he remains an amateur.
Initially, Lee downplayed his new place in the record book. Yet when a USGA official told Lee that he's likely going to be paired with Woods for the first two rounds at next year's U.S. Open, he was speechless.
"I'm going to beat him," Lee said, laughing.
Before that, he's headed back home to New Zealand next week, and he'll spend roughly three weeks there finishing high school. He's not sure when he will turn pro or if he'll attend college.
"Just get ready for the big major tournaments," Lee said. "I want to be a professional golfer, but I want to be a student at college as well."
Kittleson, a Scottsdale, Ariz., native who plays for Florida State, made things interesting in the afternoon. He had birdies on the third and fourth holes before closing to 2-down on the par-4 seventh by chipping in from about 30 yards for eagle.
"I felt like Tiger Woods for a second," Kittleson said.
Lee reasserted himself on the ninth, placing his tee shot about 8 feet from the hole and sinking his birdie putt. He regained his 4-up lead on the par-5 10th with a five-foot birdie putt that followed a behind-the-green chip that buzzed past the flagstick — his fourth straight birdie.
For Lee, it was an exhausting finish to a hectic past few weeks that included 212 holes of competitive golf.
He won both medalist and match play titles at the Western Amateur and tied for 20th in his PGA Tour debut at the Wyndham Championship across the state in Greensboro the day before he started at the Amateur.
After two rounds of stroke play, he began a seemingly unchallenged charge through the bracket to the finals. But unlike his previous five matches, this one was never easy.
Lee, who entered having trailed on only one hole since Wednesday, quickly went 2-down to Kittleson through five holes, before surging back into the lead midway through his morning trip around the course.
"I wasn't really surprised — I knew he was going to come back sometime, on some holes," Lee said. "I was expecting that to happen, and since he made that chip-in, I was thinking, 'I've got to play well' and keep focused on my game, try to make birdies."
He squared the match with a par on the par-3 ninth, starting a successful string in which he won five of seven holes — with birdies on four of them. He was up 5-up after one trip around the course, then increased his lead to 6-up with a par on the par-4 second.
"I'm usually that guy that would not be happy about anything going good for anybody else," Kittleson said, half-laughing. "It was kind of fun to watch. I mean, he was making everything. What are you going to do? He's pouring it in. We all have those days."