In fall 2005, then-senior Jeehae Lee ’06 had already planned the next few years of her life. While she entered Yale as a golfer, Lee had left the team after her freshman year and had landed a job in finance her senior year. She had long ago given up the dream of becoming a professional golfer — or at least that is what she thought.
This spring, however, Lee will not be anywhere near an office desk, crunching numbers. Instead, Lee will be traveling across the country as an LPGA Tour player.
Born in South Korea, Lee came to Yale as an athlete. But when she was a freshman, Lee felt that golf was taking away too much from her college experience.
“I didn’t enjoy missing class and taking exams in a hotel room away from school,” Lee said in a telephone interview last week. “I also wanted to do the normal college thing: go out on weekends, bond with the Korean-American community at Yale, study abroad in China … [and I thought] ‘Is golf really going to be part of my life after graduation?’ ”
In her senior year at Yale, feeling confident and more relaxed after having accomplished many of her goals in the previous years, Lee decided to give golf another try. She had heard great things about the fun the team was having under its new head coach, Chawwadee Rompothong ’00, so Lee decided to rejoin the team for her final semester.
While she had been set on a future without competitive golf, her experience on the team rekindled her interest in the sport.
“Before, it seemed that golf was more of a responsibility than anything else,” Lee said. “I started looking at it more as a fun thing. I enjoyed golf a lot more when it wasn’t such a responsibility and a burden in my life.”
After graduating from Yale, Lee spent the next two years playing on the Futures Tour — the equivalent of baseball’s minor leagues. Lee was then invited this past winter to enter qualifying school — or “Q School” as it is known among golfers — and try to make the cut for the LPGA Tour.
And that is exactly what Lee did. In September, she finished in the top 30 of 163 golfers, enough to advance to the second, and final, round of Q School. Then last month, after playing five rounds of golf in Daytona Beach, Fla., Lee finished tied for 12th, enough to rank as one of the 20 qualifiers for the LPGA Tour.
Coming out of college, Lee thought that making the LPGA would be easy. After all, she would not have to play against the best players in the world to make the cut. But, as Lee admits, she underestimated the difficulty of the Futures Tour.
Because golf came easily to her at a young age, Lee had never put much practice into her golf game, unlike her other peers.
“[Before the Futures Tour] I don’t think I had ever gone down to a green and worked on my putting for more than 10 minutes at a time,” she said. “All of these other players have been studying golf and taking lessons their entire lives.”
With her goal of being part of the LPGA always on her mind, Lee put more focus into her training and found how much she enjoyed working at it.
“I really enjoy spending hours and hours out [on a golf course],” Lee said. “That’s the biggest things that indicated to me that this is what I was meant to do.”
All the while that Lee was on the Futures Tour, she kept in close contact with Rompothong, who herself had competed on the Futures Tour but never made it to Q School.
“I told her to believe in herself,” Rompothong said. “She definitely has the talent and the ability to succeed. The toughest part was that she just had to keep going through the whole process and keep plugging away at it.”
After two years on the Futures Tour, Lee feels that she is ready for the traveling rigors that the LPGA Tour entails, but does foresee some difficulty in terms of the large gaps of free time that she will have in between events. Lee had always used up a lot of the time driving to each tournament, but now that she is part of the LPGA Tour, she will be flying to all of her events.
Because she is only a rookie and was given “Priority 11 status,” Lee will be playing in only the full-field events and not in the majors or other special exemption tournaments.
As she prepares on accomplishing her new goal of finishing in the top 40 on the LPGA money list — the top 80 players retain Priority 11 status — Lee has been putting in a lot of practice, especially on her short-game, which she feels needs the most improvement.
This time she is not going to make the mistake of underestimating the difficulty of the competition ahead.