American-born Minjee Lee, 21, has been steadily climbing the world rankings since turning professional in 2016, entering 2018 ranked No. 70 in the world. This week she starts her second LPGA season, competing in Saudi Arabia for the first time since she turned professional at the age of 17.
For many female golfers playing in the region, the dangers are already clear. Play at the Saudi Royal Golf Club, a course located near the capital Riyadh, was suspended on Friday afternoon amid growing condemnation of the Saudi state’s policies. This was despite the fact that the course had announced it would remain open.
In a letter to LPGA officials, the Women’s World Golf Tour president, Christina Farr, described the decision as “shameful, disgraceful,” and that the tour “cannot support the decision to play in this environment.” A local resident also spoke out about the dangers involved. “It’s a dangerous game, a dangerous sport for women,” she said. “It can be really dangerous.”
Even before the first round began, it was clear there would be problems in Saudi Arabia’s pro-am tournament; there were already reports of players complaining that they couldn’t fly to the Middle Eastern country and then change their plane. Lee, meanwhile, echoed concerns about the country.
“I hope that the tour does not continue playing here in Saudi Arabia,” she said in an interview with Golf Channel. “It’s going to be a little bit unusual, but I think everyone knows the situation. The course is probably a little too difficult and a little bit too far for women.”
As she talked with Golf Channel, Lee was already on the course. The first day of the tournament, she finished with a three-under-par 69 and moved up six spots in the standings, landing at No. 70 on the leaderboard.
The daughter of former tennis player turned television commentator Lleyton Hewitt, Minjee won her first LPGA tournament last year, and shared a low of the day at the ANA Inspiration. After making history with her win, she made headlines for making an appearance on Australia’s Got Talent — featuring acts that included a family kangaroo and a trio of sexy centaurs.
“I guess I kind of grew up around it,” she said, admitting she still struggles with nerves. “When you’re playing in a crowd and things are happening really fast, you have no control over it. I guess that just makes it even more frightening, but at the same time it can be really fun.”
In February, Lee competed at The Masters, sharing the low round of the day with Jordan Spieth at Augusta National. Last week she was the runner-up in a tournament in Australia, finishing five shots behind the eventual winner.
Can she follow up by winning a match at the International event? Can she add to her 34-career LPGA titles? We’ll find out in two days.