Originally created 10/03/04

Lee rides major junior wins into LPGA debut



In the five months that Alina Lee has lived in Evans, she's gone from a potential junior golf star to the real thing.

Three major junior victories over the summer will do that to a golfer's profile.

The growing reputation of the 14-year-old amateur could take another leap forward this week when she plays in the LPGA Tour's Asahi Ryokuken International Championship at Mount Vintage Plantation Golf Club in Edgefield County.

Lee, who is making her LPGA Tour debut, received one of the two sponsor exemptions into the tournament.

The exemption came in response to her run of victories in girls junior events this summer.

In a four-week stretch starting in mid-July, Lee won the Women's Western Golf Association Junior Championship in Indiana, the Big I Independent Insurance Agents Junior Classic in Oklahoma and the American Junior Golf Association's Rome Classic in Georgia.

Lee was 13 when she won the first of the three events, then turned 14 on June 25, four days before the Big I tournament.

They were the first major junior victories for Lee, who has won numerous local and regional junior events in Florida.

"I was very happy," Lee said of her summer play. "I was the youngest to win the Women's Western and the Big I, and I won my first AJGA tournament right after that."

Now, she's playing against top women professionals in the Asahi Ryokuken, a 72-hole event which begins Thursday.

"It's a huge opportunity, there's no doubt about it," said David Goolsby, the director of the International Golf Academy in Evans and Lee's instructor. "She is so young. She is lucky to get to play."

Goolsby has worked with Lee for more than two years, first in Bradenton, Fla. When Goolsby took the job to start and head up the International Golf Academy, Lee and her family followed him.

Lee works with Goolsby practically every day at the International Golf Academy, usually sandwiched between her eight hours of studying, she said. Lee is a high school junior at the University of Miami's online school.

"I'm with David and I know he's the right person for me," Lee said. "I've been with him for two years, and I've only been playing golf for less than 41 years. I trust him, so I had to come here."

Goolsby has helped Lee create a golf swing that is functional and aesthetic. Lee's follow through is similar to that of Annika Sorenstam, the world's top female player.

"Her swing is as good as any lady I've seen anywhere," said local amateur Danny Williams, who has played with Lee at Sage Valley Golf Club.

This isn't Lee's first professional tournament. Earlier this year, she played in the Bayer Challenge, a Champions Tour event with a pro-am format.

"Playing against guys and girls is a little different, especially when they're senior players," Lee said. "They were very friendly because that was a pro-am; it wasn't like I was playing against them."

Which is exactly what she will be doing against the women this week at Mount Vintage.

"My goal is to play as well as I can and hopefully make the cut," Lee said. "I know it will be a fun experience."

"To be honest with you, she doesn't need to do a whole lot other than what she does," Goolsby said. "The worst thing she could do is put too much pressure on herself. She just needs to go about the game the way she does. She enjoys it and has a good time. She just needs to be Alina."

Goolsby said Lee averages "235 to 240" yards off the tee. Once she gets an iron in her hand, Lee seldom misses a green in regulation. She hits about 15 a round, Goolsby said.

"She hits it real straight. When you hit it straight with your irons and control your distance and can putt, you're going to score. That's the key - putting," he said.

And that is the one area Lee needs to improve.

"I've always hit the ball pretty well, but my putting is gradually getting better," Lee said. "I usually have 31 or 32 putts a round, and that's not great. I would really like to get my putts down to about 28. That would really help a lot with my scores. I've been working on my tempo and speed in my stroke and trying to keep it consistent."

"Putting is a lot more finite than driving," Goolsby said. "The hole is 4 inches wide and the fairway is 40 yards wide. I think her being young, she doesn't quite understand that the putter should swing itself; she tends to steer the putter a little bit and hit it out on the toe. That makes a lot of putts come up short."

Indeed, during a practice round at Mount Vintage last week, Lee said she left eight putts just short of the hole. She still shot 73. In an earlier practice round, she had 69.

Lee, who was born in Boston, is the same age as Hawaii's Michelle Wie, but they're not contemporaries on the national junior golf scene.

Wie seldom plays in junior events, concentrating instead on major women's amateur and pro events. For that reason, Lee and Wie have never played in the same tournament, though they've met.

"I think she's a very good player," said Lee, who is 5-foot-7 compared to Wie, who is 6-foot. "She hits it very far. That's the best part of her game, obviously.

"I'm a little different from her because I don't hit it as far," Lee said. "I hit my irons very well, I think. I respect her a lot. I hope one day we'll play against each other."

Reach David Westin at (706) 724-0851 or david.westin@augustachronicle.com.