SOUTHERN PINES — Karrie Webb and Cristie Kerr weren’t at Pine Needles last week. But between them, the two most recent U.S. Open champions to be crowned at the Sandhills resort played a role in helping Minjee Lee become the newest member of their exclusive club.
Webb, the 2001 winner, has been a friend and mentor to her fellow Australian since the now 26-year-old Lee earned the Karrie Webb Scholarship as an amateur. Caddie Jason Gilroyed, meanwhile, was on Lee’s bag providing valuable assistance just as he did with Kerr in 2006.
As much as both contributed to Lee’s record-setting performance, it was Pine Needles’ first Women’s Open champion — Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam — who may have provided the greatest inspiration for Sunday’s victory.
“When I was growing up playing, like the highlights of Webby winning and Lorena (Ochoa) and a lot of people I looked up to, Annika winning. I think that’s maybe what kind of sparked my love (for the U.S. Open),” said Lee, who bested an elite international field by three strokes to win her second career major.
“This is the one I’ve always wanted to win since I was a little kid, so it just feels pretty amazing to be able to get it done today.”
Lee, whose other major victory was at the Evian Championship in 2021, made it look easy on her way to the championship.
She played her way into contention with a solid opening round 67 that put her two shots back of amateur Ingrid Lindblad and three behind unheralded early leader Mina Harigae. She caught Harigae on Friday with a second-round 66 then separated herself on “moving day” with a 67 that gave her a three-shot lead heading into Sunday’s final 18 holes.
The advantage grew to as many as five strokes, allowing Lee to cruise home without much stress.
That doesn’t mean she was immune to the pressure of a major championship Sunday.
“I was pretty nervous all day,” Lee said. “I started good. I had two birdies off the bat. It was nice just to have that little buffer. I didn’t hit it that well. I had really good saves, up-and-downs from a lot of the places, and then finishing I had a couple birdies and a couple bogeys. I think that was enough to get it done today.”
It was enough to finish with a 72-hole score of 271, 13-under par, breaking the Women’s Open record of 272 previously held by Sorenstam (at Pine Needles), Juli Inkster in 1999 and In Gee Chun in 2015.
The victory earned Lee the first prize of $1.8 million, the largest payout in women’s golf history.
While the winner took a low-key approach to her sudden windfall, not everyone was as casual. Runner-up Harigae, who earlier in the week had been very candid about the financial difficulties she’s encountered while chasing her first win, was thrilled with the $1 million check she received for finishing second.
The money weighed so heavily on her mind that she admitted to continually checking the leaderboard for players behind her once it became evident that she wasn’t going to catch Lee for the title.
She ended up finishing two shots clear of third-place finisher Hye-Jin Choi and three shots ahead of World No. 1 Jin Young Ko.
“I looked at it on 14, 15 and then my birdie helped on 16,” Harigae, who attended Duke for a semester before turning pro, said. “I’m not going to lie, my stomach hurt the last couple holes coming down. I was really stressed out, but I was really just focusing on one shot at a time, making solid contact, and just hitting good putts.”
Lee and Harigae weren’t the only players that left Pine Needles with good feelings about the week. Another former Duke star, Leona Maguire, echoed many of the players when she said would like to see the Women’s Open return to the Pinehurst area as often as possible.
It’s already scheduled to come back to Pinehurst No. 2 in 2029. That’s good news to fifth-place finisher Lydia Ko.
“I think overall this is probably some of the biggest crowds that I’ve seen at the U.S. Women’s Open,” said the two-time Olympic medalist. “This is a huge golfing community. It’s actually nice to go to places where people love it, people are excited about women’s golf being here, people are excited about golf in general.”