- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

It hasn’t been a good decade for U.S. Amateur champions.

Most of the eight winners have spent the greater part of their young careers bouncing around the lower levels like the Nationwide Tour, Challenge Tour and Canadian Tour. None of them have captured a PGA Tour title, and no U.S. Amateur champion has earned a spot in the Tour Championship since Tiger Woods.

But Danny Lee is poised to change all that.

“He’s got a tremendous amount of talent,” Anthony Kim said. “If he keeps up the hard work, good things are going to happen. It’s just a matter of time for him.”

At 18 years and one month old, Lee became the youngest U.S. Amateur champion in history last August when he notched a 5 and 4 victory over Drew Kittleson at the historic Pinehurst No. 2. Lee also claimed the Johnnie Walker Classic in February as an amateur, making him the youngest European Tour winner ever.

The way Lee won seemed as impressive as the win itself. Playing in the second-to-last group Sunday, Lee birdied four of the last six holes for a one-stroke victory. All four of his rounds were in the 60s.

The performance caught the attention of top pros like third-ranked Paul Casey.

“It was just very, very impressive,” said Casey, who finished four strokes behind Lee in a tie for 10th. “He kept his composure. He looks like he’s going to be around for a long time.”

The last four months have been a flurry of activity for Lee. He turned pro in April after missing the cut at the Masters and has played in six tournaments since, tying for 13th at the HP Byron Nelson Classic for his best finish. During a practice round at Augusta, Gary Player told Lee he has the “greatest golf swing in the world.”

But Lee comes to Congressional having missed his last two cuts. He also failed to qualify for the U.S. Open, which he would have been eligible for if he hadn’t relinquished his amateur status. Even though he hasn’t had the smoothest start to his professional career, Lee has a better idea what he needs to do to improve.

“I got to really focus on what I’m doing and really schedule my time,” Lee said. “I’ve done a terrible job making the schedule and that stuff. I’m still trying to find the right way.”

At times, playing on the PGA Tour has humbled Lee as well.

“Before the Johnnie Walker, I was practicing really hard,” he said. “Then I got sort of relaxed. I thought I was a really good golfer. Now I come out here and realize I’m not good enough yet to play really well with all the greatest players. … There are so many good guys out here - it’s really hard to get into those top 20s and top 10s.”

Justin Rose can relate. Rose turned pro soon after his fourth-place finish as an 18-year-old amateur in the 1998 British Open and proceeded to miss 18 of his first 19 cuts on the European Tour.

Rose discovered talent doesn’t necessarily guarantee success and found out how easy it was to be overwhelmed by the competition.

“The challenge is more the fitting in on tour rather than the golf side of things,” Rose said. “It’s just feeling comfortable out here. A lot of these guys are very experienced and know the golf courses really well, and that’s the kind of stuff you’re dealing against.”

That disastrous start sapped Rose’s confidence, and it took a while for him to develop into a star. He has yet to win a PGA Tour event.

But Rose doesn’t regret his decision to go pro early.

“I’m 28 years old, and one of my attributes right now is I feel experienced,” Rose said. “I feel like I’ve been through the ups and the downs and it’s made me stronger, and when I find myself in situations on the golf course I know how to deal with them much better.”

Even though the AT&T; National will be only Lee’s seventh professional tournament, he already has proved he can hold his own. He’s in the top 30 in putts per greens in regulation and leads the tour in percent of putts made from more than 25 feet. Lee also ranks 12th in par-breakers, which is a result of his aggressive, go-for-broke style.

Now the challenge is learning to give fewer strokes back by controlling his emotions and managing the course.

“I’m really working on trying to play really consistent, make lots of pars, try not to make any mistakes out there,” Lee said. “But it’s been really hard for me.”

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