The back injury made it difficult for Danny Lee to climb out of bed, much less swing a club.
“I never had that kind of injury before,” he said Thursday after shooting a 64 in the opening round of the PGA Championship. “So I was freaking out and was telling my wife, ‘OK, are we going to open up a Korean barbeque restaurant now?'”
“And she’s like, ‘Hell no.'”
Bad news for bulgogi fans.
Good news for golf.
Stronger than ever less than two years after tearing a ligament in his spinal column, Lee was 6 under in the opening round of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black to finish the day one stroke behind defending champion Brooks Koepka.
“I wasn’t surprised when Brooks shot 7 under this morning. I mean, have you seen him playing U.S. Opens and PGA Championships the last three years?” Lee said with a smile. “I wasn’t surprised at all. But it didn’t change my game plan.”
Once the youngest player to win the U.S. Amateur — breaking Tiger Woods’ record — Lee has one PGA Tour victory, winning a four-man playoff in the 2015 Greenbrier Classic. He was third after the first round of the PGA Championship that year and tied for second after 18 holes in the 2016 Masters.
“At first, I wasn’t hitting it far enough to compete out here in the major championships,” Lee said. “My teammates told me it’s not in my genetics, but I’d like to prove them wrong.”
Lee finished tied for 17th in the ’16 Masters, but he hasn’t broken the top 50 in a major since. He missed the cut at the PGA two years ago in Quail Hollow, his last appearance in a major. Then, during the second FedEx Cup playoff event in Boston, he needed to lie flat on the ground to ease his back pain.
“The next morning when I got up from my bed, I could not move my legs,” said Lee, who was diagnosed with a 50% ligament tear. “Whenever you have that kind of injury, it freaks you out a little bit. But me and my trainer put a lot of good work into it.
“I really felt like I’ve overcome my injuries, I think.”
Working on his strength and technique, Lee was able to lengthen his drive to the point where he can keep up with some of the tour’s longer hitters. He averaged 289.2 yards on Thursday on the par-70, 7,459-yard course.
“That’s a huge bonus for me,” he said. “This was actually the first time I actually got to play in a major with this distance. I’m actually interested, myself, in what I can do out there this week.”
With Koepka setting the target at 7 under on Thursday morning, Lee birdied three of the last four holes on the front nine and then gained more ground with birdies on Nos. 10 and 14. A bogey on the 15th hole left him at 4 under, but he finished with back-to-back birdies for a 64.
In contrast to Koepka, a three-time major winner who is ranked No. 3 in the world, Lee said, “it’s not always fairytales and unicorns out here” for players outside the top 100.
“Obviously, your endorsement money is not great. I mean, even I wouldn’t pay an outside 100 in the world, pay that much. Let’s be honest,” said the South Korean-born New Zealand citizen and resident of Texas, who married in 2017 and became a father last fall.
“I know my family is sacrificing out there for me to chase my dream out here,” he said. “When the results are not there, it definitely gives you a little heartbreak and a little bit of terror out there, and some of the media is expecting me to do better than that. But sometimes I get a little bit disappointed about that, my honest feelings. But all I can do is do my best, I think.”