The first time Puggy Blackmon laid eyes on Mi Hyang Lee, she and her father, Young Lee, were walking toward the USC golf teams’ training center at Cobblestone Park Golf Club on a cold, rainy day in October 2013. The director of golf for USC’s men’s and women’s teams walked over to greet them – and ran slap into a language barrier.
“They didn’t speak much English, and my Korean was non-existent,” the former Gamecocks and Georgia Tech golf coach said, laughing.
Once Young Lee got across the point that his daughter was “interested in joining our women’s team,” Blackmon said he was intrigued. Then he discovered that Mi Hyang Lee was already where his women players wanted to be: qualified for the LPGA Tour.
Thus did Blackmon and Mi Hyang Lee agree to work together – a relationship that, a year later, has resulted in Lee becoming a rising LPGA star, and a Columbia resident to boot.
In 2014, her second year as a fully exempt player, Lee won twice, including her inaugural LPGA title, the Mizuno Classic in Japan, in November. With more than $556,000 and the 29th spot on the LPGA money list, Lee’s playing status is secure and, with time off before 2015 to rehabilitate an injured right wrist, Blackmon figures the best is yet to come.
“She’s an incredible talent, and it’s fun to me to work with highly motivated players,” said the one-time instructor to PGA Tour stars David Duval and Stewart Cink. “I’m looking for her to be very, very good.”
Blackmon doesn’t have to go far to work with Lee, who recently was honored with a reception at Cobblestone Park, her home course and practice site. “Thank you to (Cobblestone director of golf) Tom (Graber) for letting me practice here,” she said in a short speech. “You (club members) have all made me feel at home.”
Lee also thanked Blackmon for helping hone her driving, short game and mental approach. “Without you,” she said, “I would not (have) won.”
Lee’s improvement the past year was impressive. In 2013, she earned about $69,000, with a stroke average of 72.8. “I asked her, ‘How much more do you think you’d have made if you cut that to 71.4?’ ” Blackmon said. “She thought about $20,000 (more); I told her more like $500,000-$700,000, and her eyes got big.”
Sure enough, Lee this year cut her stroke average to 71.47, and her earnings included $186,000 for her win in Japan. “She’s met every goal we established,” Blackmon said. If she can cut her average to 70.2, he said, her earning potential could top $1 million in 2015.
Jon Claffey, a representative of Volvik Golf, Lee’s sponsor, was on hand at the Cobblestone event to hand out golf balls emblazoned with a caricature of Lee. “When she played the (developmental) Symetra Tour (in 2012, when she was 18), she was one of the first players we signed,” he said. “She’s the next big deal.”
Now 21, Lee says her idol is No. 1-ranked Stacy Lewis, though she is most often identified with a group of top Korean players, aka the “Seoul Sisters.” She began playing golf at age 3 and became one of her nation’s top amateurs before turning pro and qualifying for the LPGA Tour in her first try, in late 2011. She played the Symetra Tour in 2012, winning once and earning Rookie of the Year honors. Earlier this year, she won the Ladies European Tour’s New Zealand Women’s Open, besting teen superstar (and New Zealand native) Lydia Ko with a closing 63.
Cobblestone members seemed infatuated with Lee, who says her non-golf passions are baseball (Korean League) and “driving cars.” Blackmon said she promised to buy her father a Cadillac after her first victory, but a more immediate purchase likely will be a home in Cobblestone Park.
Blackmon, meanwhile, has the best of both worlds. Though Lee never played for USC, she carries a Cocky head cover on her driver and is “a big Carolina fan.”
Eying one of Volvik’s brightly colored golf balls – Lee plays an orange one – he shook his head, laughing. “We might want to reconsider the color,” he said. “Do y’all have one in garnet?”