More than 2,800 days removed from his previous victory, Danny Lee finally celebrated again. All the pain, frustration and disappointment he had endured the past few years, the extreme tests both mental and physical that never seemed to subside, were now in the past. He was a champion once more, and he wasn’t about to hide his joy.
“This week, I’m the man,” he exclaimed late Sunday afternoon, a wide smile crossing his face as he held aloft the trophy after winning LIV Golf Tucson on the third hole of a four-man playoff.
It was just his second start after joining the LIV Golf League and comes after fielding a 30-minutes call earlier this year from Kevin Na, the Iron Heads captain who was finalising his team’s roster for the 2023 season. Na made his pitch to Lee, hoping to convince his good friend to join LIV Golf. The move was potentially life-changing.
Even so, risks had to be weighed.
Lee’s recent form didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Of his 23 starts in 2022, Lee missed the cut 12 times and was forced to withdraw on three other occasions. Previous seasons shared a similar script. Nagging injuries — a wrist here, a hip there — just seemed to linger. Lee’s last victory was in 2015 and doubts started to creep into his head on whether he’d ever post another win. “I just felt like winning was not my thing,” Lee admitted.
Yet Na was convinced the raw talent was still there, the kind of talent that can win a US Amateur as an 18-year-old, which Lee did in 2008. It just needed to be unlocked again.
Swing coach Drew Steckel, who works with both players, encouraged Na to pursue Lee. So did Na’s long-time caddie, Kenny Harms. Even Na’s wife made her feelings known. “She wanted him for the team too,” Na said.
Na figured the warm, embracing environment of LIV Golf League’s team-based competitive structure was exactly what Lee required. Already, he had seen how it raised the level of other gifted players whose careers appeared in need of a jump start, including another US Amateur winner, Peter Uihlein. Na hoped a good support team could help Lee get out of his own way and resurrect his game.
“Not to be mean, but Danny can be a little bit of a head case,” Na said. “He’s extremely talented. We knew that my coach and myself being there for him mentally and to mentor him would help him reach his peak performance. He’s an unbelievable player.”
The Iron Heads were the obvious team to provide that support. Like Lee, Na and Sihwan Kim — a holdover member from last year — were born in South Korea before relocating to another country. Lee moved to New Zealand, Na and Kim to America.
From Lee’s perspective, the 32-year-old realised his career drifting had to stop. The injuries were one thing, but he also took a critical look in the mirror. It was time to rededicate himself to the game. So his goal for 2023 was to increase his practice time. He also switched to a long putter in hopes of better performances on the greens.
When Na called, Lee told him about his new attitude and his plans to work hard. “I’m going to be a new man,” Lee insisted. “And you called me.”
Silently, Na thought: This must be a sign.
During those 30 minutes, Na made the offer and Lee accepted. But it wasn’t without hesitation. There were no big financial guarantees for Lee. Na’s most significant enticement was the promise of brighter days, nothing more.
Lee could see other benefits. He looked at the 2023 LIV schedule that includes Mayakoba, a place he enjoys playing, Greenbrier, a course he’s won on, and Sentosa in Singapore, another course that’s familiar to him. That appealed to him. It also didn’t hurt that The Gallery Golf Course, the host venue for Tucson, was inspired by famed architect Donald Ross’ Pinehurst No. 2 – the site of Lee’s US Amateur win.
Lee also liked the 14-tournament season that would allow him more time to work on his game and stay healthy, instead of focusing on the grind of simply making a cut. Too many times, Lee has ended a string of consecutive starts on a sour note. “I tend to play too many weeks in a row,” Lee said.
Even so, in the ensuing days after accepting, Lee called Na several times, seeking assurances that the big move was the right one.
“He said: ‘Bro, I know you’ve been a huge supporter of me and you’ve always been there for me, but am I making the right decision?’” Na recalled. “I said: ‘Danny, I can keep telling you how good this is and how good this product is, how exciting it is out there, but you have to see it for yourself. But I promise you, you’re making the right decision.’”
Said Lee: “He could see that my game is so close to being great, but he told me that this environment of LIV Golf is probably better for me than staying out on the PGA Tour.”
Ultimately, Lee trusted that his friend was steering him in the right direction — just as he has in recent years when times were tough and Lee needed a sounding board or a dose of reality.
“When I struggle with my game or my life, sometimes I call Kevin or I’ll go to his place and ask for his advice,” Lee said. “When Kevin thinks he’s your friend, he’s one of the nicest guys. He wouldn’t lie about anything or make me feel good to see something. He’ll tell me what’s up straight away.”
At the season-opening LIV Golf Mayakoba, Lee opened with consecutive rounds of even par before fading on the final day when he hit just three fairways. But perhaps the most important takeaway from that week in Mexico was getting an understanding of the team dynamic that’s such a vital part of the LIV Golf player experience.
He realised that every bogey has consequences beyond just his own individual score. That his teammates need him to perform, and that no matter how he stood on the individual leaderboard, every shot still matters for the team score. Lee even joked this week that when he makes a bogey now, Na’s face pops up in his head.
That’s exactly what Lee needed. To get outside his own bubble and become a part of a golfing family. He’s eager to spend time on the range or practice rounds with his new teammates. He said he’s “never practiced that much in my life” since joining LIV. He finds himself looking at leaderboards and checking out his team’s standing instead of his own position — a common refrain among the 48 players in the field.
“I made probably the best decision to play on LIV Golf,” Lee said. “You get to play with the best in the world, and there’s a team aspect. It just teaches me how important each shot is out there because there’s a team involved. It doesn’t matter if you’re having a bad day or a good day.
“It’s a little different than what I grew up playing in, but I love it out here. It’s awesome.”
Still, the final three holes that Lee played Sunday at The Gallery had no impact on the team’s outcome. It came during the four-man playoff to decide the individual trophy. The Iron Heads had already clinched third place on the team leaderboard, their first podium finish.
Even as his teammates waited at the 18th green to cheer him on, Lee was theoretically just playing for his own glory.
On the second playoff hole, after a brilliant approach inside 10 feet, Lee had a chance to win with a birdie but missed the putt. He called himself an idiot — but he didn’t dwell on the lost opportunity like he might have in recent years.
On his next trip down 18, his approach landed pin-high but to the right, off the green near the stands. Despite knowing par would keep him alive in the playoff, Lee still played an aggressive stroke. His putt had steam on it but clanged against the pin and dropped in for the win.
He thrust both arms in the air and let out a yell. His teammates quickly embraced him. For a golfer who wondered if he’d ever win again, it was a great way to wash off the last few years of frustration.
The key, though, is that even in the playoff, even with the outcome only impacting his own fate and nobody else’s, Lee felt the comfort of playing for a team. While he doesn’t want to let down his team, he also knows that a support system now exists to help him handle any negative moments. Soft landings for any failures.
“Even if I happen to miss that putt and lose in a playoff, my team is going to just say it’s OK, you can do it next time,” Lee said. “There’s a place I can go somewhere for disappointment.
“I’m just really happy to do something special in front of my team and make our team proud. … I’m just trying to prove Kevin was right, that Kevin made a right decision to pick me.”