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Golf star Danny Lee opens up about meltdowns in rare interview

Few people have ever been lucky enough to spot a kiwi in the wild.

Danny Lee tees off at the US Open. Source: Getty

But I’d hesitate to say it’s a much rarer instance to track down one of New Zealand’s Kiwis currently nestled on the PGA Tour.

Danny Lee is notoriously difficult to pin down for an interview.

As a player, his talent is undeniable, but his media presence — or lack thereof — in New Zealand often baffles pundits and fans.

After all, he’s been New Zealand’s highest ranked male golfer for a number of seasons, in and around the world’s top 100, and yet few people outside the golf scene would be able to pick him in a line-up.

So when I finally managed to track him down for a 20-minute call, that was my “spotting a wild kiwi in the bush” moment.

“Hi, how’s it going?”

Standing on the streets of Las Vegas, wearing a face mask, was Danny Lee. Only in 2020.

“It's been a really interesting year, and it felt like the season just kinda kept going. It’s been crazy.”

In and amongst everything, Danny and his young family have just moved to Las Vegas.

He laughs off the suggestion he’s mainly moving there due to growing up in New Zealand’s very own Roto-Vegas — “I guess that’s part of it!” — but the move out West is effectively a roll of the dice, that 2021 can bring with it a change of fortune.

“Golf wise, I’ve always started off my season kinda slow. And when I head into the Florida swing I start to pick it up, and that's when my year shines the most. The reason I moved to Vegas is I’m close to all the West Coast events, and I want to start off a little better than the last eight, nine years on tour.”

And the stats certainly paint a picture of a slow starter.

In all his PGA events played across January and February since 2012 (45 events) he’s either missed the cut or withdrawn 29 times (64 per cent) and has only finished inside the top 10 on three occasions.

But this year, he’s hoping the move, coupled with some extra time to work on his game, can mean bigger and better things.

“I really feel like I haven't been able to break through that top 100 world ranking. My main thing is to try to break into the top 50.

“I definitely want to start off by capturing my second PGA tour event victory. I think that would be a good start. And I feel like I have the game for it.”

It's undeniable that he has parts of the game for it. He’s striking the ball as well as he ever has, and he’s hoping some extra effort off the course will come in handy too.

A quick scrawl through his personal Instagram page will show you how much time he’s currently spending at the gym.

“I met a good trainer. He doesn't know much about golf, but I think that's also an advantage for me, because a lot of trainers who know about golf, they don't like players lifting heavy weights, but this guy doesn't care, there's no limits.”

In a day and age where Bryson DeChambeau is re-defining the limits on a golf course, I asked if he’s aiming to be “Bryson 2.0”. He laughs.

“No. Well, yes and no.

“I’m definitely getting stronger every day, lifting heavier and heavier weights. I'm seeing progress, which I'm really pleased with it.”

While Danny’s not generally considered among the game’s big hitters, his average driving distance last season (302 yards) ranks in the top 50. But he wants more.

“My main thing is to effortlessly carry 300 yards, instead of me always putting in a 95 per cent or 100 per cent (effort) swing to carry 300 yards, there's a difference. In order for me to do that I need a better engine, so that's why I've been working out pretty hard.”

But anybody that’s watched Danny’s progress over the past few seasons will know his distance, and iron-play isn’t what’s been letting him down.

His Achille's heel has undoubtedly been on the greens.

“I've always been a good putter, and this year the putter was the biggest thing that was letting me down. When you look at my video, when you look at my stroke, where the ball rolls I'm doing everything right. I hit a lot of good putts, but this year [they just] don’t want to go in.”

And that’s been frustrating, highlighted by what happened at this year’s US Open.

A 10-foot putt on the final hole of his third round would have put him in the top 20 going into Sunday’s final round.

Instead, he six-putted, lost his cool and smacked his golf bag in anger, before withdrawing from the tournament citing an injury.

“First of all, there's no excuse. What I did was very idiotic, and not very professional, and it's not the good image for all the young players who watch me.

“I did have an injury I was fighting against all week, but I could have definitely finished the Sunday round. I got way too frustrated [and] felt like if I showed up on Sunday I’d make another idiotic move.”

His blushes were initially saved when his meltdown didn’t make the live television coverage.

But when the video appeared the next day, it spread through golf’s social media scene like wildfire.

“There were a lot of unhappy people who said some mean words. I'm kind of a fiery guy, I wanted to react to it.”

But on the advice of his manager and godfather he bit his tongue. Looking back, he’s glad he followed their advice.

“I always thought I don't care about other people's judgment, but after that happened I found out that I do care about that stuff, and I care about my fans, and care about people and friends who follow me back in NZ, Korea, wherever in the world. I'm a better person than that.”

And perhaps that’s one explanation as to why we finally got our interview, that we finally tracked down our Kiwi.

That he wants to prove he’s more than just a promising golfer, whose meltdowns are more likely to get a further media reach than a top 20 finish.

Before we wound up our chat, and he most likely heads off to another gym session, he had one parting gift for his fans.

“I’ll try to show my best golf next year 2021 on the PGA Tour. And hopefully I can show up to a New Zealand Open if my schedule lines up right.”

A chance — albeit a slim one — to glimpse the rarest Kiwi in its native habitat.