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The year Min Woo Lee cooked

10 Min Read

Tour Insider


    Written by Paul Hodowanic @PaulHodowanic

    The horde of fans huddled around one of PGA National’s many fairway bunkers had just one desire. They hoped the ball sitting atop that sand belonged to one specific player, the exciting young Australian whose popularity, and world ranking, are on parallel upward trajectories.

    The crowd, which skewed younger and more exuberant than your standard golf fans, started cheering as Min Woo Lee headed in their direction. Their favorite player had arrived.

    “I’m literally only here for him,” said one fan in his mid-20s as he positioned himself for an optimal view of Lee’s lie. “If he shoots 60, I’ll stay another two days.”

    Social media followers can be an important metric in today’s age, but they carry far less significance if success isn’t one of the factors for the increase. Lee’s ascendance, fortunately, is the result of both his charisma and his success. In the last year, Lee has gone from an aspiring talent known by hardcore golf fans for his amateur success and international victories to a talent who’s shown he’s capable of contending on the biggest stages.

    He arrives at THE PLAYERS Championship ranked 32nd in the world ranking, and is ready to conquer the tournament that introduced him to so many new fans. Making his PLAYERS debut, Lee played his way into Sunday’s final group alongside Scottie Scheffler. Lee briefly challenged Scheffler before succumbing to TPC Sawgrass’ tricks and troubles, but his T6 finish was his first top-10 in either a major or THE PLAYERS. He followed it up with a fifth-place finish two months later at the U.S. Open.

    Min Woo Lee reflects on breakout week at THE PLAYERS

    Those two finishes showed that Lee’s powerful game, predicated on a whiplash swing that generates incredible speed from his wiry frame, can compete at some of the game’s toughest tests. They also propelled him to his first PGA TOUR card, giving Lee enough non-member FedExCup points to make 2024 his first season as a TOUR member.

    Bringing his game to golf’s highest level has introduced a new cadre of fans to his engaging persona. He’s been followed by chants of “Woooo” and “Let Him Cook,” a reference to his preferred Instagram caption. At the WM Phoenix Open, clothing sponsor Lululemon – he’s the first male golfer to endorse their clothes – arranged a guerilla marketing campaign featuring a gaggle of supporters in chef’s hats following him around TPC Scottsdale. Lee sported one himself after he won the Australian PGA Championship late last year, part of an incredible end to 2023 that featured two wins in his final five starts (and no finish worse than T15).

    Fans at the WM Phoenix Open showed up donning traditional chef's hats reading "LET HIM COOK" in support of Min Woo Lee. (Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)

    Fans at the WM Phoenix Open showed up donning traditional chef's hats reading "LET HIM COOK" in support of Min Woo Lee. (Orlando Ramirez/Getty Images)

    He is no longer an unproven commodity or a one-week wonder. He’s one of the game’s most impactful young stars.

    “It’s been a whirlwind,” Lee said.

    It’s been the year that Lee cooked.

    Still 48 hours from his first-round tee time at the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches, Lee was in high demand, running around PGA National. He started with a Golf Channel interview behind the 18th green. Then he walked to a hospitality area off the 10th tee that housed a makeshift photo studio for the TGL, the indoor golf league created by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy that will debut in 2025. Lee, 25, is the second-youngest player signed up for the groundbreaking league – only Tom Kim, 21, is younger – and the only one who wasn’t a PGA TOUR member in 2023.

    Lee spent a few minutes at both stops before he was whisked away.

    “Managing my time is probably the biggest thing,” Lee told PGATOUR.COM as he made his way to the last stop, a video shoot with Golf Digest on the other side of the property. “I wouldn't say I'm famous, but people that are famous, I understand a little of what they go through and why they want to be secluded … but it’s all perspective. This is exactly what I wanted when I was 15.”

    Moments later, a security guard stopped Lee and asked to see his credentials. He’s not that famous. At least, not yet.

    What fame he has amassed accumulated rapidly after THE PLAYERS, where American golf fans were introduced to the uniquely magnetic Lee. Rocking the “Dirtbag Cool” look, as GQ put it, Lee enchanted fans with his wraparound Oakleys, willowy mustache and scraggly mullet. Combine a frenetic swing that stops short of parallel yet is still capable of producing some of the TOUR’s longest tee shots.

    Min Woo Lee holes out for eagle from 112-yards at THE PLAYERS

    He didn’t win -- a triple-bogey on Sunday’s fourth hole ensured that -- but the week was an indisputable success. He finished T18 at the PGA Championship before his fifth-place finish at the U.S. Open later that summer. Succeeding on the biggest stages is one way to ensure your following grows.

    Lee had roughly 130,000 followers on Instagram and Twitter combined before last year’s PLAYERS. Now he has 458,000 on Instagram alone, 13th-most on the PGA TOUR. Over the last 12 months, Viktor Hovland and McIlroy are the only TOUR players who have gained more followers on Instagram and only Justin Thomas garnered more engagements. Add in 274,000 TikTok followers and Lee is close to eclipsing 800,000 followers across social media platforms.

    “It kind of just happened very naturally,” Lee said, “and it was awesome.”

    Each of Lee’s distinguishable characteristics can be explained away as a coincidence, but they combine to form an intriguing cocktail. The mustache? He grew it out once and he played well, so it stuck. The mock turtlenecks, similar to what Tiger Woods wore in his heyday? He thought “Oh god, what is this,” when they were sent to him. But he kept wearing them after he received compliments. (Does Lululemon have something in the works? “You got to wait to find out,” he says). The wraparound shades that first became popular in the late ‘90s? Lee is serious about protecting his eyes. “You protect your skin; why not protect the eyes?” His social media videos that go viral weekly? He gives full credit to a two-man player content team at the TOUR.

    “They make me look good,” Lee says, “I’m just making a caption and posting it.”

    But to say Lee plays no part is to do him a disservice. Effervescent and effortlessly charismatic, Lee is the engine driving the growth of his personal brand. He has an eye for what people like. It just so happens to match his personality.

    “Nothing's forced, which is great,” he said. “And it's just people like it. People enjoy it and I like to entertain, so if they like it then I'm happy.”

    Min Woo Lee signs for fans during the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)

    Min Woo Lee signs for fans during the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches. (Ben Jared/PGA TOUR)

    Added Kurt Kitayama, Lee’s roommate: “He’s a goofball. On camera and off camera, he's the same guy.”

    It’s been that way since Lee was a young kid in Perth, Australia. He’s part of a first generation where social media was a natural part of childhood. Lee joined Twitter when he was 13 and Instagram when he was 16. His first posts were photos of his victories at junior tournaments, including the 2016 U.S. Junior Amateur, and a video of Woods from a clinic at the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. It is there that Woods taught him how to hit the famous stinger.

    There’s no need for Lee to write a biography; it’s all laid out in his Instagram profile. Engendering social media appeal has always come naturally for him. He’s always had an innate sense of how to capitalize on the latest trends. It wasn’t born out of a thirst for the spotlight, though. It was just Lee being Lee. Fun-loving and outgoing, he has the perfect personality for the platforms.

    “I've always tried to have the motto of, (it) doesn't matter how good or bad I play, just try to make other people's day better and try to laugh about it,” Lee said, “and I'm doing that while playing good. So it's quite a double-whammy.”

    Lee’s face lit up as he walked to the first tee of the Cognizant Classic pro-am and saw Micah Morris. To the unplugged golf fan, this may be a confusing interaction. Lee dapped up Morris like he would a longtime friend or fellow PGA TOUR pro. Morris is neither, but the two hold mutual admiration.

    Lee is entrenched in the established golf culture but keen on appealing to a younger generation. His generation. It's a generation that’s as interested in the elites like Lee as well as those like Morris, who runs a popular YouTube channel with nearly 500,000 subscribers.

    Lee is ingrained in the growing space of golf YouTubers, a group that is starting to break into the mainstream. The PGA TOUR’s upcoming Myrtle Beach Classic recently held a one-spot qualifier made up heavily of social-media influencers. The recent Good Good Invitational drew hundreds of thousands of viewers.

    Lee’s recent appearance in a Callaway golf video garnered 820,000 views, more than any video produced on Callaway’s channel in two years. He was featured in a series of Good Good Golf videos this winter, which amassed more than 2 million views. He draws more internet eyeballs than most professional golfers and is more willing than most to engage.

    Tournaments recognize him as part of the draw. He was picked as one of the four sponsor invitations for the pro-am. He played alongside Morris, Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and Tyler Cameron, former lead on The Bachelor. Content from their group produced some of the highest views on the PGA TOUR social accounts that week and the NFL’s official account collaborated with the content. Lee capitalized with a social post of his own highlighting the experience.

    Min Woo Lee plays pro-am round with Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches. (Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR)

    Min Woo Lee plays pro-am round with Miami Dolphins quarterback Tua Tagovailoa at the Cognizant Classic in The Palm Beaches. (Tracy Wilcox/PGA TOUR)

    When Lee isn’t golfing, he lives a relatively benign life for a 25-year-old. Roommates with Kitayama in Las Vegas, Lee doesn’t frequent the strip or extravagant shows. He’s often playing Call of Duty. On any given night, he could play with country music star Kane Brown, or hop into a call with top “Call of Duty: Warzone” streamers Mason "Symfuhny" Lanier or Dennis “Cloakzy” Lepore, who are broadcasting to thousands of people. On other nights, it’s just a group of fellow TOUR players – often some combination of Kitayama, Collin Morikawa, David Lipsky and Justin Suh.

    “He's probably one of the best out here at Call of Duty,” Kitayama said. “So when we play with him, if we're not holding our own, he's yelling at us, because he thinks we're like supposed to be like the streamers he plays with.”

    Lee imagines himself streaming at some point. The NBA’s Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns, soccer stars Sergio Aguero and Neymar and F1’s Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc are among the high-profile athletes who stream in their downtime. But Lee wants to ensure he first holds up his end of the bargain on the course. It’s a theme for him. He’s as aware as anybody of his growing popularity, and while his social media presence is full steam ahead, he’s mindful of how he’s perceived and wary of over-indexing himself too early. “I just need to play better first,” he said.

    Lee’s 2024 got off to a slow start after his scorching finish to the previous year, but he recently finished second at the Cognizant. He has long-term goals, too, like playing in this year’s Olympics and Presidents Cup. Lee is projected to make the Australian Olympic team as the second-highest-ranked golfer in the world ranking behind Jason Day. He also is a strong consideration for the International Team that will compete at Royal Montreal.

    “He has all the tools,” International Team captain Mike Weir said. “He loves the moment.”

    And he likes the external expectations and attention it brings.

    “I mean, I tend to play well when I do have some pressure,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you play well, you're going to have crowds. So you might as well have them on your side.”

    They will be on his side at THE PLAYERS this week, waiting for Lee to dazzle them again.

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