Lee with the Byron Nelson Trophy; and with his family at the Masters. Pic: Getty Images
As the only child, K.H. Lee did not own the latest golf clubs or branded apparel unlike other Korean kids who grew up idolizing Tiger Woods or K.J. Choi.
His parents, who operated a restaurant in Seoul, kept aside money they earned to largely fund Lee’s passion and dreams in golf that it has kept Lee humble and appreciative of the sacrifices made by his father, Sang Moo and mother, Hea Won Hong.
With Mother’s Day being celebrated this past weekend, Lee can’t thank his mother enough for keeping the family business running primarily on her own while his father took on the role of driver, chaperon and confidante during his formative golf years.
The 30-year-old Lee defends his title at the AT&T Byron Nelson at TPC Craig Range in Texas this week, a year on from his career breakthrough on the PGA TOUR. To say the least, the journey to attain his American dream has been long and windy, if not bumpy.
“Without my mother, we would not have been able to come this far,” said Lee, who finished a career best 31st on the FedExCup points list last season.
“She took care of all things. The hardest work was done by my mother alone. Dad and I were better off because we lived together. I thought a lot about how lonely and difficult it must have been for her. So thinking of her hard work makes my heart ache sometimes.”
It was only when Lee was much older that he learned of some of the hardship his mother endured, including sleeping alone in the restaurant as it was too far and sometimes too late to make the commute home after business hours. He also appreciates the fact his folks carried the financial burden without his knowledge.
“Back then, they didn’t talk about difficulties at all. I just did what I wanted to do. If there are good things … I mean players buy new clothes when you play golf. So I said ‘I’d like to buy too.’ It hurts a little I had done that immaturely. If I had known, I wouldn’t make them upset. There were times when my mother and father had such a hard time. They just encouraged me to do what I wanted to do.”
Hea Won said she and her husband simply wanted to do what all parents would, which was to provide Lee with every opportunity to excel in life after their son got hooked to golf at age 13. “There were times when I wished someone was by my side running the restaurant,” she said. “The restaurant was for Kyoung-Hoon (K.H.) to do well, so I was able to persevere and get through it.”
The older Lee is proud of his son’s achievements in the U.S. and also in Asia, where he has won twice each on the Korean circuit and Japan Golf Tour. Sang Moo said K.H. would accept what they could provide as they spent time together at training camps and tournaments both at home and abroad.
“We were a little short (of money) at the time. Even if we didn’t say it, he knew it,” said Sang Moo. “If all his friends wore Nike, I had to buy him non-branded clothes. Kyoung-Hoon (K.H.) was not shy at all and trained hard. Why is there no shame in a young boy’s heart?”
Initially, the parents did not imagine Lee would become a professional golfer. In school, their son was good in his studies and was picked to participate in short put as he was pudgy. Golf soon caught Lee’s attention as his grandfather played the sport and a driving range opened near the family restaurant.
Lee took lessons with the local teaching pro, Hyung Sang Chun who noticed something different about the boy. “He was a very gentle kid, and at first, I wondered if he could be good at sports. He was just ordinary at first but after a while, he showed he was reliable and didn’t act frivolously like other children. He focused well and had good self-control. He always asked questions. So, I suggested to his father to consider letting him grow up as a player because he had capabilities.
“When he came to practice, he rarely backed down from his hitting spot. He practiced steadily. I would say, hey, Kyoung-Hoon, if you’re done with practice, go home. He’d say yes, but he would never leave the range. He was the type of player golf coaches liked. In that gentle personality, he had something extra … may I say, he has an iron hand in a velvet glove?” said Chun.
Chun thinks his former pupil can surpass the eight PGA TOUR wins that K.J. Choi has achieved. “I think he’ll play well for a long time. Now, he is married and has a child. His life has stabilized, and if he works hard, another chance will come. Now that he has won, he will be able to play more comfortably without feeling burdened. He could win 10 times or so. I think he can.”
K.H. regrets the times when he argued with his father during their travels, but appreciates the many pearls of wisdom the elder Lee shared. “We were just going through hardships together. We fought many times, it was really hard back then and there were a lot of fights. Thinking about it now, I feel sorry. My father accompanied me in every round, every day. Actually he didn’t have to. In a way, he shared my schedule equally. Following my schedule must have been tough for him physically,” said Lee.
“He gave me a lot of advice. My father reads a lot of books and whenever he found a good article, he’d passed it on. But above all, he said to don’t give up until the very end as it’s the path I’ve chosen.”
Although his son has already earned US$5.6 million through four seasons on the PGA TOUR, Lee Sr. knows K.H. will remain hungry for more success on the fairways due to his upbringing and family struggles. “Money was the bottom line,” the father said. “It wasn’t enough … that’s when I learned the spirit of staying hungry and why athletes need a spirit of staying hungry. We showed Kyoung-Hoon our situation openly, but we didn’t explicitly tell him our finances were difficult. He could learn something with that.”
“We did our best, we sacrificed for him. Because we are parents, that’s what we did.”
Note: The writer is senior director, marketing & communications – APAC for the PGA TOUR and is based in Malaysia.