SOUTHERN PINES, N.C. -- Australian Minjee Lee won the U.S. Women's Open at Pine Needles Lodge & Golf Club on Sunday by five strokes after shooting an even-par 71 in the final round to finish 13-under on the tournament and secure the second major victory of her career.
Twenty-one years after fellow Australian Karrie Webb won the U.S. Open at the same venue, Lee held on to a four-shot lead after three rounds and held off 32-year-old American Mina Harigae, who came into the week having never finished inside the top 10 of a major but finished second at 9-under.
"I mean, I'm speechless," Lee said on the 18th green after raising the trophy. "It's the one I've always wanted to win, and now I've done it."
Lee's victory nets her $1.8 million -- the largest payout in women's golf history -- as part of the U.S. Open's record $10 million purse.
"We're moving in the right direction," Lee said of the purse. "I think it's only going to get better from here."
Growing up, Lee said she dreamt of hitting a putt to win the U.S. Open, even practiced it. On Sunday, she didn't have to worry about her putts on 18. As Lee got to her second shot on the 18th fairway, someone near the green accidentally popped a champagne bottle. It was premature, but it felt fitting given that Lee's victory never truly felt in doubt all throughout Sunday. She three-putted for bogey on the final hole, but it didn't matter.
"That was the nervous-est I've ever been," Lee said with a laugh about the putt after the round, the trophy by her side. "Even with a three-shot lead, I never felt comfortable today."
If that was the case, Lee didn't show it. Whether she was missing spots or hitting them, she was an emotional metronome. On the second hole, she made a long birdie putt, and fans near the green, whose view was obstructed by a mound, couldn't tell she made it until she walked up and pulled it from the pin.
"To start aggressively, I think it was the right move, and then after that I had quite a big shot lead, so I was able to just play my game just to finish," Lee said.
Distance and ball-striking set Lee up for success at Pine Needles. Throughout both Saturday and Sunday, Lee was ahead of Harigae by 30, 40, even 50 yards or more. Lee said the extra time she's been "going hard" in the gym lately has helped her slowly increase her swing speed, which has resulted in longer drives.
"Obviously if you have a shorter club in, then you can be a bit more aggressive," Lee said Saturday, effectively summing up her 67 on Day 3 and preempting what was a similar story Sunday. "But it doesn't matter how far I can hit it because the second shot is what matters."
While she wasn't the most accurate in the field off the tee Sunday, Lee's consistent length allowed her to gain strokes with her approach shots. She ranked in the top 5 in greens in regulation on the tournament and was top 10 in strokes gained on approach, around the green and putting.
"I didn't hit it that well," Lee said. "I had really good saves, up and downs from a lot of places."
Beyond her connection to Webb as a past winner, Lee's caddie this week also had a connection to another winner. Jason Gilroyed was also on the bag for Cristie Kerr when she won at Pine Needles in 2007, but as Lee pointed out, the course has changed so much over the years that there wasn't a natural advantage to having him by her side.
The 26-year-old Lee won her first major last July at the Evian Championship in France by erasing a seven-stroke deficit and beating South Korean Jeongeun Lee in the first hole of a sudden-death playoff. Lee also has two third-place finishes at majors in her career -- at the British Open in 2020 and at the ANA Inspiration in 2017. Her best U.S. Open finish before this tournament was tying for 11th in 2017.
Later this month at the Women's PGA Championship at Congressional Country Club in Washington D.C., Lee will try to become the first player to win back-to-back majors since Inbee Park won the first three majors of 2013.
World No. 2 Nelly Korda (2-under) finished tied for eighth in her first tournament since undergoing surgery for a blood clot in her left arm. South Korean Jin Young Ko, the top player in the world coming into this tournament, finished tied for fourth at 6-under, while the No. 3 player in the world, Lydia Ko, finished fifth at 5-under.
Ko was one of the players who stayed after finishing her round to celebrate with Lee, who had champagne and a phone that was "blowing up" waiting for her while she took numerous pictures with the trophy and talked to media.
During the trophy ceremony, Lee also got a call from her brother Min Woo, who plays on the European Tour. When asked what his message was, Lee said: "'Well done. See you tomorrow.'"