At the Australian Open last year, Danny Lee's approach shot to the par-5 16th at Royal Sydney Golf Club found a bunker deeper than Yao Ming is tall. "Hey," the reigning U.S. Amateur champion said to a kid following his group, "what'll you give me if I hole this?"
"A high-five!" the boy said.
"Okay, then I'll hole it."
Lee hit a high knuckleball that cleared the lip, released and trundled 20 yards into the cup. Highfives were had by all.
"I need some cockiness on the course," Lee says a week later. "I need to have fun, be myself, and sometimes be a little bit of an a--hole." Lee, 18, is sitting in the clubhouse of Wairakei Golf Club, a pristine, pine tree-fringed course on New Zealand's North Island, 45 minutes from his family's home. He sports the standard-issue Next Big Thing look: White shoes, windswept hair with gold highlights, belt buckle bearing a silver "59." (He hasn't carded one yet, but it's on his todo list.) He's so skinny he'd have to shrink Charles Howell III 's hand-me-downs.
After a morning spent punishing range balls, Lee's calloused hand grabs a spoon to stir a hot chocolate. Born in Korea, he speaks English slowly and clearly with a Korea-meets-Kiwi accent. About that bunker: Okay, it was a lucky shot. "But you have to feel like you belong out there, like you can hit any shot." As Lee sees it, his idol Tiger Woods is both a great sportsman and a cocky S.O.B. between the ropes. "I have to be like that on the course to achieve what I want and play my best." So he shows off, kicks dirt, high-fives and, on bad days, snaps clubs and yells what every player sometimes thinks: "F--- golf!"
Few teenagers have the self-awareness to admit to being assholier-than-thou. But Lee who is Eddie Haskellpolite in person isn't like most teenagers. He beat the check-cashing likes of Lee Westwood and Anthony Kim at the Johnnie Walker Classic, in Australia, Lee's first victory on a big-time professional stage. Last August at Pinehurst No. 2, he became the youngest U.S. Amateur winner in the event's 113- year history, six months and 29 days younger than Tiger was when he won in 1994. The win punctuated 26 dizzying days of golf that also saw Lee claim the Western Amateur and bank a top-20 in his first PGA Tour event, the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C. The Pinehurst win punched Lee's ticket to Augusta. "I can't believe I won," he says. "I think, 'Holy s---! The Masters!'"
In April the world will see who shows up at Augusta: the humble, hard-working No. 1 amateur with talent wrapped in tinsel, or a brash teenager who's been accused of quitting on his teammates.
When Lee returned to New Zealand after his Amateur win, he placed the replica of the Havemeyer Trophy on the kitchen table and stared at the golden steeple cup for 30 minutes. "Those names," he says. Jones, Nicklaus, Woods. "To think, in 50 years, someone will look at my name. I thought, 'Did I really win?'"
He did, thanks in large part to his parents, who still coach him. His mother So Jin Seo, a 5-handicap, used to teach at a range near Seoul. One day when Danny was 8, he grabbed a driver and took some swings. He had the best swing on the range. By 12, he was winning junior tournaments. So Jin Seo and her husband, Sam, who was battling cancer at the time and happy to flee Seoul's polluted air, moved with their three sons to Rotorua, in the volcanic heart of the North Island. Rotorua has clean air, spouting geysers, and an excellent junior-golf program.
Lee got even better. His parents rode him hard, playing bad cop-worse cop. "I really hated my parents because they wanted me to focus on golf all day, study at night, and not be with my friends. My dad, he never says 'good shot' to me. He tries to build up my mental [toughness] by making me mad. He heckles me. 'Why are you swinging like that?' They say bad things. But now I understand why they do it. To make me tough, the best."
His parents were in New Zealand, a 20-hour flight from the Carolina Sandhills, when their son played the 36-hole match-play final to decide the Amateur. With 11 holes left, Lee's title hopes rested on a knife's edge. His six-hole lead over Florida State's Drew Kittleson was now two. After a solid drive down the eighth fairway, Lee turned to his caddie for the week, veteran Pinehurst looper Bob Scheirer. "It's time to get this match under control," Lee said. He birdied the next two holes and won, 5 and 4. "Danny's one of the few players who can make birdies when he wants to, by sheer will," Scheirer says. Pinpoint irons and a hot putter helped Lee birdie 13 of the match's 32 holes.
A telling moment occurred before the final. Lee was warming up on the range when Scheirer mentioned that he'd just turned 47. Danny stopped hitting balls and asked, "Did anyone sing you 'Happy Birthday'?" "He then sings me the whole song: 'Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...' " Scheirer says. "He's about to play the biggest match of his life, and he's serenading me on the range. That tells you about Danny and his nerves."
Lee felt a calm at Pinehurst that he credits to his win at the Western Amateur, in Michigan, and his impressive play at the Wyndham. "The Amateur seemed... not small, but less intimidating," he says.
At Greensboro, one week earlier, he got a lesson in course-management from his new BFF Jerry Kelly. "Mr. Kelly is a funny guy!" Lee says, recalling a practice round when the pair reached Sedgefield Country Club's watery 376-yard par-4 eighth. "Mr. Jerry is hitting iron, and I have my driver. Jerry says [in American accent], 'What the f--- are you doing? There's a 15-yard gap in the fairway, and it slopes to the water. Put the f---ing driver away.' I said, 'Lemme hit driver.' He said, 'Put the f---ing driver away! Hit 4-iron.' I said, 'Okay.' I made a birdie."
Lee decided late in 2008 to turn pro following the Masters, surrendering his amateur status and spots in the U.S. and British Opens. "I want to play on a different level, to play the Tour." In Greensboro, he says, "they treated me like a superstar, but they treat an amateur like a young boy. I want to be seen as a professional, not a boy."
Lee still lives somewhere between adolescence and manhood, as he showed last October at the Auckland airport. He and fellow members of New Zealand's golf team were checking in for a flight to Australia for the Eisenhower Trophy team championships.
The agent asked Lee if he was carrying anything flammable. Lee said, "I've got the bomb." The agent tore up the players' tickets, and police questioned Lee in a small room before letting him fly to Australia. "It was a mistake," he says. "I was joking. I said sorry. It was wrong to say the B-word."
Shaken by the airport experience, Lee played poorly at the Eisenhower Trophy, shooting 84 in his last round. A New Zealand broadcaster said Lee "dropped his bundle" and quit on his teammates in the final round. Lee doesn't disagree. "I've done a lot of stupid things," he said. "I've learned."
Lee's work ethic makes Vijay Singh look like a drowsy Teamster. He practices eight hours a day, every day. He hits balls on Christmas Eve. Neighbors who share a cul-de-sac with the Lees have seen Danny at 6:30 a.m. hopping down his paved driveway, hands on his head, to strengthen his legs. One day at Wairakei Golf Club, sheets of rain chased regulars to their cars while Lee toiled on the putting green, his white shoes filling with water.
"That's who he is," says his swing coach Steve Jessup. "He doesn't want to win by 1. He wants to win by 12. He has the talent and drive to be No. 1."
Can he win the Masters? "Maybe," Lee says. "I'm going there to win. I play to win, or why play?"
Lee brings a revamped swing to Augusta, having reduced the vertical lunge his torso makes on his downswing. His strength is distance control, not distance. "He'd be about average on Tour in length, but few can match him for accuracy with his irons," Jessup says. "And he likes to fire at flags."
Does he ever. Last year at Piper Glen in Illinois, Lee battled 74 players and 110-degree heat for three Amateur spots. Lee, who had driven overnight from Michigan, told his caddie, "I'm too tired to putt. I have to go for the pins." He hit eight approaches to inside five feet, shot 65, and topped the field.
When Lee turns pro after the Masters, his bank account will have more zeroes than The Bachelorette. But he could have earned more by going pro after Pinehurst, before the economic crisis. "That would have been perfect timing," said Lee, who estimates that he passed up a $50 million payday. He might only get half that now.
Talk of money can irk him. "I don't want to hear 'rich.' I care about winning." But don't you want to buy your folks something nice? Like Hawaii?
"I focus on my goals," he says. "To be in the top 10 of every [Tour] event. I think about the Masters. I can't wait to see the Crow's Nest!"
Bobby Jones won five Amateurs, but Lee isn't lugging the Havemeyer trophy to Augusta for good luck. "The case is too big to travel." He smiles. He can't resist. "They might think it's a bomb."