Thankful for the Game: Lee Fulfills Dream in Late Mother's Memory November 2, 2017 | Daytona Beach, Fla. By Lisa D. Mickey

Finding perspective on and off the golf course helped Erynne Lee reach her goal of playing on the LPGA Tour in 2018. (Courtesy of Symetra Tour)

There were tears in her father’s eyes when Erynne Lee lifted her replica LPGA Tour membership card at the conclusion of the Symetra Tour’s 2017 season in early October.

Tears, because a family goal had been achieved with Lee’s sixth-place finish on the Symetra Tour’s 2017 money list, earning her full 2018 LPGA Tour status.

Tears, because Brian Lee had carried his older daughter’s golf bag for 15 weeks during the season, helping her record six top-10 finishes that included a pair of victories.

Tears, because when mother Debbie Lee died suddenly in 2011 of a brain aneurysm at 52 during Erynne’s freshman year at UCLA, Erynne was able to fight through the grief, perform at a high level on the golf course and earn a psychology degree in 2015.

With three wins in two seasons (2016-2017) on the Symetra Tour, Erynne Lee, 24, earned the LPGA Tour membership her parents hoped she would attain after they watched countrywoman Se Ri Pak, of the Republic of Korea, win the 1998 U.S. Women’s Open Championship.

While Pak undoubtedly lit the fire for their big family dream, it was Debbie Lee who gladly fanned the flames.

“I know my wife … would be really, really excited,” said Brian Lee, dabbing his eyes prior to the Symetra Tour’s awards ceremony. “My [two] kids had a hard time losing their mother, but time goes by and it helps.”

That healing time was important as Erynne ultimately turned her mother’s dream into her own. Debbie would drive daughters Erynne and Katie, who is three years younger than Erynne, to golf lessons, practices and tournaments. The sisters also competed together for Central Kitsap High School in Silverdale, Wash., one hour west of Seattle.

A former Washington State Golf Association and Pacific Northwest Golf Association Women’s Player of the Year, Erynne qualified for the 2008 U.S. Women’s Open and reached the semifinals of the 2008 U.S. Women’s Amateur at age 15.

She also advanced to the quarterfinals of the 2010 and 2011 U.S. Women’s Amateurs and qualified for the 2011 U.S. Women’s Open. Those accomplishments helped earn Lee a place on the victorious 2014 USA Curtis Cup Team, to which she contributed two foursomes victories. She helped the USA finish eighth in the 2012 World Amateur Team Championship in Turkey, and as a member of the 2013 USA Copa de las Americas Team, she posted the low individual score. 

Before pursuing a professional golf career, Lee was a member of the victorious USA Curtis Cup team in 2014. (USGA/Steven Gibbons)

But just as Erynne’s game was beginning to flourish, her mother suffered a stroke while visiting family back home in Korea. The normally vibrant, go-getting golf mom fell into a coma and never recovered.

“It was sudden and unexpected, and the impact it had on Erynne was profound,” said Carrie Forsyth, head women’s golf coach at UCLA.

During this trying time, golf became therapeutic for Lee. Teammates and coaches provided a much-needed support system.

“She gained perspective and really became less impacted by the ups and downs of the game,” added Forsyth.

In her 2015 “Senior Signoff” in The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, Lee noted, “Whether it applied to school or golf, how I took defeat was just as important as how I took a win.”

That attitude likely carried Lee through an up-and-down rookie campaign on the Symetra Tour in 2016. Although she won her professional debut, the season-opening IOA Championship, and added five more top-10 finishes, she fell seven spots short of the top 10 on the final money list, which would have earned her LPGA Tour membership.

“It was definitely an adjustment,” said Lee. “The life of a touring professional is not as glamorous as some people think it is, or what you imagine it to be.”

The lifestyle was a far cry from college. Traveling to events often included long drives and the accommodations weren’t five-star resorts. In Year 2 on tour, Lee did a better job managing the logistics.

“I was learning how to better navigate the entire season,” she said.

By the second week of July, Lee had notched her second career victory – and first of 2017 – by surviving a three-hole playoff against August Kim at French Lick Resort (Ind.).

That $30,000 paycheck moved her into the top 10 on money list and into position for an LPGA Tour card. Lee collected her second win of 2017 two weeks later, again with dad on the bag.

“We spent two months together driving to tournaments, cooking in hotel rooms and competing,” said Brian, who owns a restaurant and gas station market in Washington. “Every minute with my daughter was exciting.”

And every mile with her father was reassuring for Lee, who questioned in 2016 if she had what it takes to compete at the top level.

“I learned that I don’t quit,” she said. “Sometimes, you have to fail to reach a better place. There were so many things I needed to work on before I was ready for the LPGA.”

While getting there was initially her parents’ dream, Lee calls her next big step a “self-fulfilling journey with a lot to learn.”

And if her mom were here to celebrate the milestone, Lee knows exactly what she would say.

“She was a tiger mom, and she would say she’s expecting even bigger things on the LPGA Tour,” said Lee. “That was her way of saying she was proud of me.”

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.