FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Like Tiger Woods, Danny Lee had a back injury that once had him questioning his PGA Tour future. Unlike Woods, Lee contemplated trying his hand in the food business if things didn’t get better.
“I think it happened at the third playoff event in Boston,” Lee said recounting his injury in 2017. “I played two holes, and something—I felt something on my back, and the only place I could go was lying on the ground. The next morning when I got up from my bed, I could not move my legs. I never had that kind of injury before, so I was freaking out and was telling my wife, okay, are we going to open up a Korean barbecue restaurant now? And she’s like, ‘hell no.'”
Sticking with golf has proved to be the right move. Not only has Lee picked himself off the ground since those scary times battling a torn ligament in his back, but on Thursday at the 2019 PGA Championship, he climbed the leader board at Bethpage Black with an opening 64 that has him one shot off Brooks Koepka’s lead. The 28-year-old attributes being healthy—and longer—to contending on the brawny Long Island muni.
“At first, I wasn’t hitting it far enough to compete out here on the major championship . . . but now I’m definitely hitting it further,” said Lee, who credits swing coach George Gankas for the improved distance. “I can carry my driver about 290, 295 in the air. That’s a huge bonus for me. And that was actually the first time I actually got to play in a major with this distance. I’m actually interested in myself what I can do out there this week.”
Golf fans were certainly interested in Lee when in 2008 he broke Woods’ record to become the youngest winner of the U.S. Amateur. He won a European Tour event the following year while he was still an amateur, but struggled to stick on the PGA Tour until his lone win at the 2015 Greenbrier Classic.
“When you are fighting for your Tour card every year, it’s basically where you work out here,” Lee said. “How would you feel when you lose your job tomorrow? And you put a lot of effort into it. You’ve tried your best, and you did everything you could do, and you don’t have a job tomorrow. That’s the same feeling we have. I know it’s a dream-chasing work, and I’m grateful and happy to be out here and happy for my opportunities out here, but it’s not taking baby from candy out here.”
The South Korean-born New Zealander with a great sense of humor may have mixed up that idiom, but he made his point. And it’s a fitting one considering the different type of pressure he now feels as a new dad.
“I sometimes feel like I’m a bad person when I play bad because a young baby and my wife and my mother-in-law traveling with me out here, and when I don’t make a good result, it just makes me feel like I didn’t do what I’m supposed to do,” said Lee, who has three top 10s this season, including a runner-up at the Mayakoba Golf Classic in November. “I definitely have that kind of mindset in my head now.”
Just playing in a major has to feel good for Lee, let alone being near the lead. His last start in one of golf’s four biggest events resulted in a missed cut at the 2017 PGA Championship. In nine previous major starts, a T-17 at the 2016 Masters is his only top-40 finish. But with a closing birdie on Thursday, Lee will enter Friday’s second round just one shot back in solo second place and three shots clear of Tommy Fleetwood in third.
Granted, there’s a lot of golf to be played at Bethpage Black this week, but maybe Lee will get to serve some Korean barbecue after all. At next year’s PGA Champions Dinner.