Jennie Lee to play LPGA Tour

Jennie Lee did it all while at Duke University.

She led the Blue Devils to two NCAA team championships. She earned All-American honors all four years, twice as a first-team choice and twice as honorable mention. She even got it done in the classroom, as a three-time academic honoree in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

Her résumé is also loaded with amateur golf accomplishments.

So it should be no surprise that, less than two years after graduating from Duke, the 24-year-old has earned her way onto the LPGA Tour to play against the best women’s golfers in the world.

Lee survived the grueling and weather-plagued five rounds of the LPGA Qualifying Tournament from Dec. 8-12 at Daytona Beach, Fla., tying for 14th in the 120-player field with a 2-over 362 total.

“It was awful out there, especially the last day,” said Lee, who grew up in Huntington Beach, Calif., and left for Duke in 2005 at about the same time her parents moved to Henderson, where she now lives. “The final round was the worst of the week — the wind was blowing 30 mph and the rain was blowing sideways. I think there were only five girls under par.”

Indeed, only five players broke par in the final round, and only nine players finished the tournament below par, with Aree Song winning at 6-under 354. The top 20 finishers plus ties earned full status for the 2011 LPGA Tour, and Lee ended up right on the cut line as one of seven players to tie for 14th.

“I wasn’t sure how I’d end up as far as the cut line, but I was pretty pleased at the limited number of bogeys I had in the last round,” said Lee, who carded just three bogeys in the rough conditions while notching a steady 14 pars and one birdie. “I was pretty happy with where I was at the end, because I had a pretty rough start.”

Lee shot 5-over 77 in the first round.

“I think I was in 90th after that. I had two double bogeys, two mistakes, and it just cost me,” she said. Actually, she was tied for 94th, but it didn’t take her long to turn things around.

Lee shot 1-over 73 in round two, jumping 27 spots to a tie for 67th. She got even better in round three with her first under-par day, shooting 2-under 70 to leap another 30 spots into 37th place. Then she blitzed the course with her best round of the week, shooting 4-under 68 in the fourth round to move into a tie for 20th, firmly in position to gain her LPGA Tour card.

“I was just really happy with myself at that point. I’d given myself a chance to be in the top 20,” she said. “It was an uphill climb all the way.”

Then came what proved to be a solid 2-over 74 in the final round — a score recorded not only in wicked weather conditions, but with a tremendous amount of pressure on Lee.

“Of course, there’s so much pressure coming down to the last round,” she said. “It was really difficult to handle the wind and the pressure at the same time. I think I did better than I expected with my nerves. My whole thing the entire week was thinking, ‘Stay in the present.’

“I was most nervous on the 16th, 17th and 18th holes coming in. Everything was blending all together, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I had one shot on 17 and one on 18 that got away. Luckily, I barely stayed away from the water on both holes.”

She settled down after both stray shots, on the par-3 17th and the par-5 18th, notching pars on both holes to close the tournament.

“I just said to myself, ‘Take a par, don’t force a birdie.’ Because the next thing you know, you’re pushing hard for a birdie, and you end up taking a bogey,” she said. “I had birdie looks at both holes, I hit two lag putts, and I was able to tap them in.

“I did everything I could and played well, so I was happy with how I handled it.”

She wasn’t quite as composed after learning she’d earned her LPGA playing privileges, but that was to be expected in such a moment of joy.

“It was amazing. I just couldn’t believe it,” she said. “Honestly, it’s just a dream come true, and I have a lot of hard work to still do. But getting through Q-School is a big step, and I’m excited. I had tears rolling down my face.”

After the Q-School grind, Lee was able to take a break from the game, rest her nerves and spend some time at her parents’ Anthem home, which remains her home when she’s not traveling for tournaments.

“Honestly, I’m still a little overwhelmed,” she said. “During the holiday season, everything was still a little bit hectic. I just put the clubs aside for a little bit and enjoyed Christmas.”

Over the holidays, she received plenty of support and kudos through the social network scene.

“I got a good number of texts and Facebook messages,” Lee said. “It’s been awesome to have people follow up on my success. It’s been really exciting.”

Lee said her family’s support has also been key, noting it’s been helpful to head to her parents’ house whenever she gets a break.

“I think it has helped. I’m on the road so much and really don’t have much off time,” said Lee, who finished 18th on the LPGA’s Duramed Futures Tour money list in 2010, playing in 16 tournaments. “It’s just so nice to come home during the offseason and be with family. Mom can cook you what you like, things like that. It’s much more comforting, especially with the experience (coming up) in the next year.”

With the exception of a couple of events in the Far East in February, the LPGA Tour season doesn’t really get into full swing until the Kia Classic from March 24-27 in City of Industry, Calif., followed a week later by the first major of the year — the Kraft Nabisco Championship in Rancho Mirage, Calif.

While Lee is eager to compete and prove herself at the highest level, she also holds more modest goals.

“I’ve honestly got to say that my No. 1 goal, whether I play three or 20 tournaments, I really want to enjoy being out there, making new friends and really having a lot of fun on the golf course,” said Lee, while admitting she’d love to contend for rookie of the year. “I want to have fun being on tour, traveling and experiencing everything.

“If I’m happy on the golf course, the golf will come to me. I’ve been playing most of my life. If I’m relaxed, enjoying every hole, every shot, and enjoying the challenges, the golf will take care of itself. I don’t have to worry about it.”

As with Q-School, she expects to battle more nerves, but she’s ready for the challenge.

“I am nervous, excited, a whole mix of emotions,” she said. “But it’s the same game.”

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