As one of the lone upperclassman on a young men’s golf teams, Ki Taek Lee was thrust into a leadership position early on in the season and has delivered on all fronts.
For head golf coach Matt Thurmond, it’s clear why.
“He took a break from the game he’s been playing his entire life,” Thurmond said. “It calmed him down spending time with family, being home and not thinking about golf for a while.”
For about a month during the summer, Lee touched a club maybe three times. That sabbatical came during a period when Lee didn’t play a tournament from early April through August.
“That break was very healing,” said Lee, a 21-year-old senior at Arizona State. “Every day was emotional.”
Emotional? Well, Lee didn’t just hang his golf spikes — he went home.
For the first time since he was eight years old, Lee returned to Cheonan, South Korea where he reunited with his grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins. He hadn’t seen any of them since he and his parents moved to Vancouver, B.C., Canada 13 years ago.
As a therapeutic escape, the time away from the game has proved beneficial. Lee has been rolling — currently enjoying the best stretch of golf of his career.
He started his final season for the Sun Devils with a runner-up finish at the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational in mid-September. Then, he earned a co-victory — his first collegiate win — at the Alister MacKenzie Invitational later that month.
Since then he hasn’t finished outside the top-20 and his coach says he’s opened up with his teammates more and more throughout the year.
“He really seems at peace,” said first-year Arizona State head coach Matt Thurmond, who recruited Lee while at Washington. “Even over the two and a half months that I’ve been here, I’ve seen him open up with his teammates, become more social, just more happy, confident and comfortable. So I think a lot of that probably does tie back to that trip to Korea.”
“Connecting with family, there’s nothing better than that to put everything in perspective for you.”
Last season, he struggled to crack the lineup, and failed to make the postseason roster. Lee has always been confident in his game and has tried to stay patient throughout his time as a Sun Devil golfer.
“Missing out on NCAAs was definitely a bummer, but our team was strong,” Lee said. “Sometimes, even though I was playing well, it just wasn’t good enough to qualify. … I just tried to stay patient and wait for my time.”
On the season, Lee has a 67.17 scoring average and one round not in the sixties (71).
“Part of it I credit to (the break), but I also believe in myself a lot more,” Lee said. “Numbers-wise, yes, this is my best stretch of golf, but I’ve felt like I’ve had this in me for a while. I don’t feel like I’m that far off from freshman year, but something has just clicked.”
Lee said he’s been asked about his improved play many times, but he just can’t really explain it. He has simplified his swing thoughts, and as he’s matured he’s improved his course management, but nothing major.
He did credit the jobs that Thurmond and new assistant coach Van Williams, who helped Oregon to a national title last spring, have done, but Thurmond downplayed the impact of the new coaching staff, instead giving all the credit to his player.
“I think Ki Taek would have been playing great whether I was here or not,” Thurmond said,“He’s a great player and he knows what he’s doing. I’ve found him coachable, very responsive. He’s taken a leadership role. … He’s just one of those guys that I don’t really have to worry about at all.”
Lee has indeed developed into a mature leader for a Sun Devils team that lost three starters, including current PGA Tour player Jon Rahm, from last season. He is ranked fourth by Golfweek after ending his last three seasons ranked 375th, 263rd and 536th.
“Watching him, he’s not always going to win every tournament, but I don’t see it stopping,” Thurmond said. “I think he’s only going to keep getting better after he graduates.”