PGA Championship: Danny Lee keeps Koepka from lapping the field

FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK - MAY 16: Danny Lee of New Zealand plays his shot from the 16th tee during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 16, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
FARMINGDALE, NEW YORK - MAY 16: Danny Lee of New Zealand plays his shot from the 16th tee during the first round of the 2019 PGA Championship at the Bethpage Black course on May 16, 2019 in Farmingdale, New York. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

The PGA Championship opening round almost became a runaway for Brooks Koepka, but Danny Lee kept the defending champion in check with his own outstanding play.

The PGA Championship kicked off with some tremendous star power, featuring an early group of the three reigning major champions. Notably, it was another head-to-head matchup between Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods, a blossoming major rivalry between stars of two generations.

Koepka stared down the Tiger once again, opening up a four-shot lead through the early wave at Bethpage State Park. It’s only Thursday, sure, but nobody would blame you for leaping ahead three days and prepping the Wanamaker for Koepka’s name – again.

But then something funny happened in the afternoon round. One player put together a round that might have been just a hair better than Koepka’s. That man was Danny Lee, whose opening round of 64 leaves him just one off the pace heading into Friday’s second round. This PGA Championship isn’t over yet.

You might (might) remember Danny Lee from such tournaments as the 2008 U.S. Amateur, which he claimed as the youngest winner in that event’s history (at that time), six months younger than Woods. He also won the European Tour’s Johnnie Walker Classic in 2009 as an amateur. His most recent professional win came four years ago, when he won a four-man playoff at the Greenbrier Classic.

Not ringing many bells? For all but the most dedicated fans out there, that’s a forgivable oversight. But he’s hoping that this week will help people remember his name, perhaps for decades to come.

How did Danny Lee get here, you ask? The story is a long an interesting one, but here’s what you need to know. He was a can’t-miss prospect as an amateur, and he made his first major start at the 2009 Masters. Still a few months shy of his 19th birthday, he missed the cut at Augusta National, but he turned pro following the event.

In the decade since, he’s bounced between the European, PGA and Tours, struggling to find a level of consistency in his game that would give him stable membership on the biggest tours. Two years ago, he suffered a back injury that he was worried could end his career before he ever got where he believed he could be. That moment changed his outlook, but perhaps not in the way you’d have expected.

"“I felt something on my back, and the only place I could go was lying on the ground,” he said. “The next morning when I got up from my bed, I could not move my legs. I never had that kind of injury before, so I was freaking out and was telling my wife, ‘OK, are we going to open up a Korean barbecue restaurant now?’ And she’s like, ‘Hell no.’ ”"

This is when Lee focused on rebuilding his swing from the ground up. Over the past handful of years, he’s focused on one of the traits that makes guys like Koepka or Dustin Johnson so good: power.

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"“At first, I wasn’t hitting it far enough to compete out here on the major championship,” Lee admitted. “But now I’m definitely hitting it further. I can carry my driver about 290, 295 in the air. That’s a huge bonus for me. And that was actually the first time I actually got to play in a major with this distance. I’m actually interested in myself what I can do out there this week.”"

Lee has added 17 yards to his drives over the last three-plus seasons. He was averaging a lethargic 283.1 in the 2014-15 season, all the way up to 300.2 in 2018-19. That’s not exactly Koepka levels of strength, but he’s also not dead in the water before he tees off anymore, and that can go a long way in a major.

Of course, believe it or not, Lee actually lost strokes to the field off the tee. Such is the nature of today’s game, where 300 isn’t long enough, especially if you’re not deadly accurate. Lee hit just seven of 14 fairways on Thursday at Bethpage, and that’s with a shorter-than-usual driving average of just 280 yards. From just those stats, things are looking pretty bleak, aren’t they?

Thankfully, that old tired adage rang true for Lee on Thursday. “Drive for show, putt for dough” indeed. Lee led the field in strokes gained putting, making up 3.5 strokes on the greens. He only hit 10 of 18 in regulation, but when the flat stick is working like that, it’s a recipe for success.

Next. Brooks Koepka on historic pace at the PGA Championship. dark

Lee will get the early draw on Friday at the PGA Championship, and whether he can keep up the pace remains to be seen. Of course, getting off to such a strong start is a massive advantage. Brooks Koepka doesn’t seem like the type to get shaken by, well, much of anything these days, but if he keeps seeing Danny Lee pressing along, there will at least be one more enjoyable storyline to develop into the weekend.