Brooks: Lee Excited For Buffs To Host Pac-12 Tourney
BOULDER - As a high school senior in Los Alamitos, Calif., Esther Lee's choice of colleges ranged from the best to the very best. Not only was she a three-year member of the Principal's Honor Roll, her golf game was a couple of huge drives and sweet chips beyond spectacular.
Colleges lined up, but Lee had one school at the top of her list and was adamant that no other could supplant it. Her future - educationally and athletically - was tied to Duke, and loosening the knot was impossible.
Or so she thought.
"I was very focused on Duke," she said. "Most of the (recruiting) deadlines had passed, but I was holding out for Duke."
No surprise, but when her dream school beckoned, the consensus Top 10 junior golfer and All-America selection didn't think twice about heading for the East Coast. Those thoughts would come later.
"I definitely should have explored my options and applied to other schools," Lee says now, reflecting on her choice. "I had a rough freshman year, a rough transition. It was so far from home and I was homesick. It was hard for me with school, golf and trying to manage things. In high school I could manage my time better; I didn't back there."
Lee decided to transfer, and once more her options started at elite and stayed there. She hadn't considered the University of Colorado while mulling her future, and CU golf coach Anne Kelly hadn't considered recruiting Lee. But sometimes what is unplanned turns into the most rewarding.
Kelly had watched Lee develop as a junior golfer and, along with the rest of the golfing world, was impressed. "I looked at her swing and thought, 'That girl's really good' - and she was," Kelly recalled. "But quite honestly, that's not the player we get. And not to make that sound wrong, but it's really hard because of our location and our weather circumstances to get a Top 20 kid. We do well with players that we help develop - like the Emily Talleys (former CU golfer) and people like that.
"But I definitely remember watching (Lee). She was one of the top players in the country - top five at that time. Sure, you want those players but it's hard to take a lot of your recruiting time on them because the chances are pretty slim."
CU'S CHANCES BEEFED UP. A little over a year later, Kelly received an unsolicited email.
Recalled Kelly: "I remember getting (it) and recognizing the name. I sent it immediately to Brent (Franklin, assistant coach). We kind of both emailed back and forth, 'Is this who we think it is?' And it was. And it was like, 'Oh my gosh' . . . we just happened to have a scholarship available."
Lee isn't overly comfortable with the general notion of a budding golf star falling from the heavens and landing on the Buffs' roster. But she does concede that Kelly and Franklin were stunned by her contacting them: "Yeah, I think they were caught off guard . . . coach says she's lucky to have me, but I don't think she should feel like that. She's got eight great players and I'm just one of them. We are still the underdogs and I think she knows that."
That humility has endeared Lee to Kelly and her teammates as much as her skills. Lee, said Kelly, "is so team oriented. That's really the interesting thing about her. And it's really important to her. I don't know if I should say it's unusual for a golfer of that level who is the No. 1 junior golfer in the country or in the top five . . . but to find somebody who is that team-oriented is great."
Granted, golf isn't the first sport that comes to mind as a team game, and Kelly calls it "kind of a crazy combination in college because it is an individual sport. It's really the only time in most of these players' lives where they'll get to play at a high level as a team unless a player went on to the Curtis Cup or something like that."
But right now for Lee and her new teammates it is a team sport and she's taken well to it. Her confidence has soared, she believes her game has improved, and she knows her personal life has. New friendships have been made, solid relationships have been formed.
"I am new here and at first it was hard because all the other sophomores had started together," Lee said. "I was a little intimidated coming in, but now I can say that my teammates are my best friends - and that's pretty awesome. I've found a home here, I'm really comfortable."
Lee, who had a pair of Top 20 finishes (12th, 16th) in three tournaments at Duke, didn't reach out to CU on a whim. She has Colorado roots, having spent her first five years in Pueblo before moving with her family to California when she was six. An uncle still lives in Pueblo and she has a cousin in Colorado Springs.
"I just feel so fortunate that we have her on our team," Kelly said. "I think it's worked well for her; I believe she's happy here and she's played some great golf."
GREAT AND GETTING BETTER; Lee and the Buffs placed third behind Oregon and Oregon State at their Silverado Showdown earlier this week in Napa, Calif. CU was only two strokes behind winner Oregon, marking the Buffs' best finish in a stroke play event this season. And at 212 for the three rounds, Lee was only three strokes behind medalist Lucia Gutierrez of California, with the second-place finish her third in the top five this spring. That ties Lee for third all-time at CU for best single-season finishes.
The Buffs get another opportunity against Oregon, Oregon State and the rest of the formidable Pac-12 next week (Monday-Wednesday) when CU hosts the conference women's golf tournament at Boulder Country Club. The Pac-12 features six schools in this week's NCAA Division I Top 25, including No. 1 USC and No. 3 UCLA. CU is ranked No. 39.
In Kelly's first season at CU, the school hosted the Big 12 championships at BCC. But, said Kelly, "This is so far beyond that it's unbelievable. It's such a great opportunity. It's very interesting to see how the game has grown. We're extremely excited to host the Pac-12. It's the first time we've been able to show off our area to the Pac-12 women's golf programs. If the weather cooperates they're going to be very impressed."
Colorado National Golf Club in Erie is CU's home course, but Kelly said that course usually doesn't "green up" until May. The BCC course's ground temperatures appear to warm faster, and the club's staff and membership "are so supportive and enthused" about the Pac-12 event.
The Buffs hope to use their familiarity with the course, the altitude and Colorado's unpredictable spring weather to their advantage in the 54-hole tournament. Also, said Kelly, "As a player it was always good to get the support. It's exciting to play in front of people who don't get to watch you very often. There's also a downside in a little more added pressure. It's going to be interesting to see how we handle that. I'm really hopeful that they're going to do well. Our team seems to be on an upswing and really coming together. But golf is very unpredictable."
Also, added Lee, after returning from Napa at mid-week, the Buffs don't have to repack and board another airplane this weekend. "That's really exciting," she said. "It's nice not to have to travel to another place. We're excited to play here."
It's also exciting for her to go head-to-head with her new Pac-12 foes; it was a big reason she contacted CU when leaving Duke. "The Pac-12 has been so strong in golf and I wanted to be able to compete at the highest level," Lee said. "It's been a challenge, but it's been fun. I can't wait to see what the next two years will be like. We can only get better."
If her new team's ascent begins early next week, no one will complain -- particularly Esther Lee.