Danny Lee, 18, is headed to the Masters

Danny Lee, 18, is headed to the Masters

Lee's hometown of Rotorua, New Zealand, is a hotbed of geothermal activity.
Alistair Guthrie

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.”