For a PGA Tour stop that served as a last gasp qualifying tournament for the Open Championship, the Greenbrier Classic couldn’t have asked for more drama. Four players entered the final round tied, four ended Sunday locked at -13.
In the end, Danny Lee survived two playoff holes to win his first career tournament. The South Korean-born New Zealander birdied the par-3 18th and followed with a two-putt par on 17 to best David Hearn. Kevin Kisner and Robert Streb bowed out after failing to match Hearn and Lee’s birdies on 18.
The victory is a special one for Lee. Not only is it his first on the PGA Tour, but it also helps him build momentum for a possible Presidents Cup selection. This year’s competition will take place in Lee’s native South Korea. At 24, he’s just one of many rising Koreans looking to make their mark in the game including Seung-Yul Noh and Sang Moon Bae. All three will have hopes to play in the Presidents Cup and contribute to what has been a losing cause for the international team.
Lee’s ascension has been a long time coming. At 18, he won the US Amateur, becoming the youngest player in history to do so (An Byeong-hun, another South Korean, beat his mark the next year). But the professional game had been less than kind to Lee despite that historic triumph. He turned pro in 2009, the season after his US Am win. Between then and the Greenbrier, Lee played in 97 PGA Tour events. He finished in the top-10 five times.
Sunday’s final round showcased a Lee that was still learning to win. Consider his final four holes, the last two in regulation plus the two playoff holes. Lee began the stretch with an aggressive birdie on the par-5 17th. The hole played more than 600 yards in soft conditions, leading most players to lay up. But Lee hit driver-three-wood to land just short of the green in the rough. He flopped a shot, another aggressive play, rather than bump-and-run a ball up to the hole. Lee was rewarded with a short birdie putt, which he drained to tie the leaders.
If 17 showed a determined youngster, 18 displayed a nervy one. Again Lee gave himself a birdie putt. This time, however, he left it woefully short. And so it went. He returned to the 18th green in the playoff and drained a substantially longer birdie putt. Then on the 17th tee, he pulled his drive well left. Luckily for him, Hearn put himself in even more trouble. An even score was good enough for Lee.
His reward is a nice paycheck, a spot at the Open Championship (Hearn will join him as will James Hahn and Greg Owen, who grabbed the qualifying spots), and some much-needed experience to launch his young career.
While Lee held the trophy, he was far from the only story. A certain Tiger Woods turned in a bogey-free 67 to once again renew hopes of a triumphant return to St. Andrew’s next week. And then there’s Streb, who produced one of the more stunning back nine’s in recent memory. His Scotty Cameron putter quite literally fell apart midway through his final round. Streb responded by making five birdies against one bogey on the back, all with a sand wedge. A five-foot birdie putt on 18 sent him to the clubhouse tied with the lead.
It’s just what the Greenbrier Classic needed considering so many “big” names—aside from the biggest name—were absent. Bubba Watson, who finished T13, was the only star in the top-20. That’s a good thing for golf, though. The stars will get their showcase next week. It’s good to give some of the rising players the spotlight for a weekend. And who knows, with so much promise, we could see the likes of Lee again soon.