Korean-born Kiwi Lee becomes shock Masters contender

3 min
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Augusta (United States) (AFP)

Danny Lee was such a surprise contender at the Masters that when he sank an 18-foot birdie putt to grab second place, he couldn't get anyone to notice.

The 25-year-old New Zealander rolled in the tricky putt from beyond the green at the par-3 12th to stay hot on the heels of the eventual first-round leader, defending champion Jordan Spieth.

"It was a tough putt and I knocked it in and no one clapped," Lee lamented. "I guess nobody was watching my putt. I was just waving at myself to the crowds. 'I made birdie, guys.'"

Other back-nine birdies on 10 and the par-3 16th put the South Korean-born Kiwi on four-under par 68 after 18 holes, level for second with Ireland's Shane Lowry, two shots adrift of Spieth.

"I cannot ask for any better place to finish off the first round," Lee said. "I was very pleased with my round."

Lee is back at Augusta National after a seven-year absence. He won the 2008 US Amateur title to earn a 2009 Masters berth and went 74-81 to miss the cut in his final event before turning professional.

The world number 38 earned his way back to the Masters by winning his first US PGA title at last year's Greenbrier Classic.

"After I make the winning putt at the Greenbrier Classic, all I was thinking about was coming back to this place. I'm having a blast out here," Lee said.

"Ever since you started playing golf as a kid, you grow up watching the Masters. I was watching Tiger Woods shooting 4-over on the front nine and winning the Masters. And it's just good to see my name up there on the leaderboard."

Lee's success comes after a caddie switch, having dropped long-time aide Kurt Kowaluk for former John Daly bagman Mike Hartford.

"Obviously it worked very well," Lee said. "It was very hard for me to let my ex-caddie go. It was a very tough decision for me and I'm still a little bit upset about it.

"But we were a little bit thinking about different stuff out on the course and it wasn't matching up very well and I wanted to bring my A-game this week, because it means a lot."

Lee has only cracked the top-30 twice this year, a fourth at the Phoenix Open his lone top-10 effort.

"We've been working very hard on my short game and putting the last couple weeks and I can see some good results coming in," Lee said.

Lee, who moved from South Korea to New Zealand at age eight and became a citizen there in 2008, said the round was among the five best of his career, largely due to gusting wind that played havoc with his shotmaking at times.

"It was tough out there," he said. "It's blowing 25 mph all day. A lot of times it felt like 50 mph. A lot of gusts. It was very hard to commit to the line on the putting green because the wind was blowing so hard. I was just really trying to focus on my routine and I did a great job."

Morning rains that softened the greens didn't hurt either.

"The ball was stopping pretty good and that definitely helped me a lot," Lee said. "I actually had a lot of good breaks."