Commentary

Whirlwind tour ends with Lee defeating Kittleson for U.S. Amateur title

Originally Published: August 24, 2008
By Ryan McGee | ESPN The Magazine

Bob Scheirer has seen some funky golfers in his day.

[+] EnlargeDanny Lee
AP Photo/Gerry BroomeDanny Lee raises the Havemeyer Trophy after a 5 and 4 victory over Florida State sophomore Drew Kittleson on Sunday.

He's spent the past decade caddying at Pinehurst, where he's handled clubs for some of the best players in the world. He's also walked those legendary links with a thousand rich weekenders, fat cats who jet into town to tackle the No. 2 course that's humbled everyone from Ben Hogan to the Golden Bear. Most of those fat cats look and play like Judge Smails from "Caddyshack."

But in all his years on the bag, Bob's never seen anyone like Danny Lee.

"He's an original," Scheirer says with a laugh. "I let him know early in the week that I'm pretty familiar with the course, but he didn't need my help. He expects to hit every fairway and make every putt. And he usually does."

During a week packed with "I never saw that before" moments, Lee still managed to draw the most gawks. He's a walking, swinging, hurting, joking, multilingual teenage sideshow, born in South Korea but raised in New Zealand, who dresses like Herb Tarlek.

He's also the 2008 U.S. Amateur champion, a victory that is the culmination of a furious three weeks of golf that began with a victory in the Western Amateur and included a tie for 20th at the PGA Tour's par-bashing shootout that was last weekend's Wyndham Championship in Greensboro. In between he also managed to medal at a U.S. Amateur qualifier in Springfield, Illinois.

"I am so tired," the 18-year-old admitted as he posed with the Havemeyer Trophy, an award that has passed through the hands of Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson, and some kid named Woods. In fact, Lee's victory managed to one-up the moment when the Legend of Tiger began, eclipsing Woods' 1994 record as youngest U.S. Amateur champ by nearly seven months.

"Yes, I heard something about that," Lee said with a smile, referring to the week's endless media references to his newly appointed "next Tiger" status.

At times during the weekend, the world's No. 1-ranked amateur resembled the Tiger of Torrey Pines, wincing in pain with each big swing, sometimes letting the club roll out of his hands and onto the ground.

Lee said his left shoulder "clicked" while he was hitting balls at the driving range prior to Friday's quarterfinal round, and began to hinder him with searing pain. After defeating Morgan Hoffman in 15 holes to reach the final, Lee went to a local Sandhills hospital where X-rays came up negative and doctors were left scratching their heads as to the cause of his injury.

They obviously hadn't seen Lee's swing.

"When I talk to amateurs about their swings, I always preach to them the importance of slowing things down," says LPGA star-turned-TV analyst Dottie Pepper. "Now I'm going to have to tell them not to watch Danny Lee."

His backswing and finishing position unfold with the kind of easy, measured tempo that Pepper tries to teach. It's the middle part that scares the hell out of people, more like a split-second attack that resembles the Arnold Palmer slash stuck on fast-forward. His iron stroke is only slightly more civil. His putts either bang in or bang out.

All you need to know about Lee you can find out by watching his final shot of the day. His last shot of the 108th U.S. Amateur was just the kind of over-aggressive, too fast, mile-long putt that Donald Ross turtle shell greens are designed to hurl into no-man's land. Lee's ball banged in for birdie to seal the championship with an audible clank.

You get the feeling he'd be much happier if he could just hit the "start" button and immediately move on to his next shot like he was playing "Tiger Woods PGA Tour Golf" on Xbox.

"The biggest surprise for me when I played with the pros [at the Wyndham Championship] was that they don't attack like I expected," Lee said. "They lay up a lot. They will go for par when I expect them to try for the birdie."

Keep in mind he's talking about a tournament that Carl Pettersson won with a score of 21 under. Sheesh.

Lee's opponent on Sunday, Drew Kittleson, earned his berth in the finals by playing the kind of swing-for-your-life golf that a guy like Lee can appreciate. The world's 367th-ranked amateur, Kittleson barely made the Pinehurst field of 315, winning his regional qualifier in a playoff. The Florida State sophomore came from behind all week long, including Saturday, when he was two down to short-iron phenom Adam Mitchell after four holes. He promptly won seven of the last 11 holes to take his match 4 and 2 to advance to the finals.

Lee had no idea what a comeback felt like … at least not until he met Kittleson. After trailing just once in his first five matches of the week, Lee was forced to chase Kittleson over Sunday's first nine holes, eventually taking the lead for the first time with a birdie at the par-5 10th.

After stretching that cushion to 6 up on the second hole of the afternoon 18, Lee withstood one last charge from Kittleson before stepping back on the gas (and damn near blowing up his shoulder hitting out of the long grass on No. 12) to ice the 5 and 4 win.

"All of us that played against him this week played well," Kittleson said, disappointed to lose but proud of his Sunday 31-hole scoring equivalent to 6 under par. "We all forced him to have to make birdies and that's what he did."

Now, as Lee heads back home to finish high school (he missed graduation to qualify for the U.S. Amateur), he also faces the kind of decision that makes or breaks careers. Does he turn pro and explore the likely lucrative promise of this long, hot summer? Or does he go to college, keeping his amateur status and accepting his now-automatic invitations to play in next year's U.S. and British opens and likely a trip to Augusta for the Masters?

He says he'll stay an amateur. Most expect him to do the opposite.

Either way, Scheirer will be waiting.

"We'll see him back here in 2014," the caddie said, already looking ahead to the U.S. Open's next visit to Pinehurst. "If Danny wants me on the bag, no problem. He's good."

Good and funky.

Ryan McGee, a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine, is the author of "ESPN Ultimate NASCAR: 100 Defining Moments in Stock Car Racing History." He can be reached at mcgeespn@yahoo.com.

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