Andrea Lee stands five feet, seven inches tall, with thick hair that brushes past her shoulders when it’s not in a ponytail. Trailed by her Yorkshire terrier, Toki (Korean for “bunny”), the 17-year-old moves with an athlete’s erect gait around her Hermosa Beach home. Lee has always been physically precocious, and the house is filled with sports trophies and plaques. She mastered the 35-foot-high rock-climbing wall at a Manhattan Beach complex when she was 4, then competed briefly in figure skating. At 6 she was named the MVP of her youth soccer team and six years later earned a black belt in tae kwon do. But it’s golf that she loves and that seemingly loves her. Lee first swung a club at 5 and at 8 began entering kids’ tournaments, winning 50 competitions in four years. When she turned 12, she became eligible for American Junior Golf Association events, emerging as the top-ranked girl by the time she was 15. That year Lee was also the youngest player to make the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2. She went on to claim two consecutive junior golf titles (the Rolex Tournament of Champions and the inaugural Yani Tseng Invitational) before advancing to the semifinals of the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship.
Early this year she was named to the U.S. squad competing for the Curtis Cup in Ireland in June.
As she passes the walls of photos, some showing her with golf luminaries such as Annika Sörenstam and Butch Harmon, Lee moans at the images of a young girl with braces and heavy glasses. “The dark days,” she says. She stops to touch the silver medal she won at the Pan American Games last year; that spring she also vaulted to the world’s number one ranking as a female amateur. As she reflects on her accomplishments, Lee loses some of her natural shyness. “I always feel like I could have done better, that I could have won more,” she says. “I’ve just got to keep working harder.”
“Work” means steering her car to the driving range at the Harbor Golf Practice Center, a routine that was interrupted early this year when the facility shut down for storm repairs. As Lee sets up at one of the end stalls, white plumes from a nearby refinery billow skyward; at her feet is a frayed mat. The range that serves the working-class Harbor Gateway community has few pretensions, making the quality of Lee’s shots stand out even more.
There’s a gracefulness to Lee’s movements that belies the workmanlike nature of the sport, which demands hours of repetitive movements. “When you watch Andrea hit balls, she’s never in a hurry,” says Craig Chapman, a Marlboro-puffing, harmonica-playing teaching pro who’s trained local talent since the 1970s. “Most people out here, they’re just beatin’ balls—they’re not going through that ‘mode,’ ” the studied setup that every player should follow but that weekend warriors seldom have the patience to perform.
A rectangular mirror sits behind Chapman’s bench, and Lee takes an occasional peek at her backswing. “She likes to look at herself,” drawls Chapman, flipping the tassels of his loafers as he delivers the playful dig. Lee smiles and shakes her head, then resumes swinging her 6 iron.
When asked whether Lee has the stuff to go pro, Chapman, who’s produced several PGA and LPGA competitors over the years, peers into the distance. Yes, he says, and not only because she’s showing the mixture of commitment and drive that’s put young Korean girls atop the leaderboard in junior golf.
Andrea Lee—not her parents, not her teacher—hates to lose.
Koreans are famously crazy about golf despite the fact that the sport is so expensive in their native land—$300 for a round at public facilities—that only the richest can play. Angelenos, meanwhile, can tee off at any of the city’s 13 courses for well under $50 for 18 holes and $20 for 9. Many Korean families make a point of leaving the peninsula to vacation in L.A., where they can pack in lots of time on the affordable courses and train with Korean-speaking teachers. Once home, the golfers dive back into the next best thing—virtual reality—playing millions of rounds of Screen Golf at the more than 7,000 venues.
Los Angeles, which has the largest Korean population outside of Korea, also happens to have the most public-run golf facilities of any major metropolitan area in America. The response by Korean residents to this abundance has been electric. James Ward, golf manager for the City of Los Angeles, estimates that Asian golfers, the majority of them Korean, account for nearly a fourth of the players at the municipal venues.
Kyeyoung Park, associate professor of anthropology and Asian American studies at UCLA, says that while Korean parents still aspire for their children to become doctors, lawyers, and other high-end professionals, they’re warming up to the prospects of a career on the golf tour. “It can be another way to make it in the U.S.,” he adds. Especially for women. When Se Ri Pak won the U.S. Open in 1998, she became the role model for the legions of Koreans who were picking up the sport. By the start of the 2016 season, at least 7 of the top 15 players on the LPGA tour were Korean, including top-ranked, New Zealand-reared Lydia Ko.
Chapman has coached a number of Korean girls who’ve achieved national recognition. “Their work ethic is just untold,” he says. “Their patience level—you hardly ever see any frustration coming out of them. It’s just the way they were brought up, in my opinion. You never see these kids talk back. They just work. You tell ’em what to do, and they go about it. The others, they want to tell you what they think they need to do.”
Andrea’s parents, James and Sunny Lee, were born in South Korea and moved to L.A. when they were children. James and his mother arrived in 1977, when James was 9. His mother opened a liquor store in the Pico-Union neighborhood near USC while his father, who was employed at the Korean embassy in Tokyo, stayed in Japan for seven more years before rejoining the family. “The store was not in a very good area,” says James, now a restaurant owner and developer. “I remember getting spit on. My mom was robbed many times at gunpoint. The sacrifices they made back then—and I’m sure every immigrant family has gone through a similar time—I feel that was purely for the benefit and the future of their kids.”
Sunny’s father, who was a member of his country’s military forces, was stationed at the Korean embassy in Washington, D.C. His family remained behind in Seoul. Upon his retirement in 1980, he moved his wife and daughter, then 9, to the United States, settling in Gardena in 1982. Sunny’s mother found a job as a seamstress in the garment district. “All my friends, our stories are so similar,” says Sunny. “We had to take care of ourselves. We ate a lot of SpaghettiOs. And I think that’s why we want to give more to our kids, because we grew up without all the attention and support.”
Initially, aiding Andrea’s sports exploits was time-consuming but manageable. Once she became hooked on golf, however, and competing on the junior golf circuit, the demands on James and Sunny rose dramatically. “It’s a full-time job, really,” James admits. “This is an individual sport; you take them to a lesson individually. It’s not just something where you drop them off at a basketball court or have a team mom pick your kid up.” A normal week involved 20 hours of shuttling Andrea to and from lessons and entire days on the road if they were traveling to competitions. Then there was the expense—about $40,000 a year for lessons and tournaments.
“The parents do everything to put them in a successful position,” says Chapman of his Asian clientele. “There’s no sparing any expense for what they need to do to be better. Their parents bring them here for lessons; they have tutors for their schoolwork. They eat and they drink and they sleep golf. Some of the parents want me to teach them every day. I won’t do that. That’s an overload; it’s too much.”
The Lees, who consider themselves 1.5 Generation Koreans, are the opposite, putting little visible pressure on Andrea. If anything, they’ve tapped into the American perception of sports as developing positive traits. “The game of golf has taught Andrea a lot of things,” says James of his only child. “It’s built her character and her personality and her integrity and all those good things. But she has, I believe, the talent as well. Not to be biased, because I’m her dad, but she has the showmanship—she performs. She plays better when others are more nervous.”
The moment that pushed Andrea Lee to her limits came last fall, when she succumbed to her classmates’ pleas and returned to the school’s golf team. The payoff was Mira Costa’s first state championship in girls’ golf. The price was exhaustion unlike anything Lee had experienced before. “It’s been hard all along to balance academics and golf,” she says of juggling AP courses and the junior tournaments, one of the reasons she left the high school team after winning the individual state title as a sophomore. “Adding high school golf onto that was tough because I missed extra days of school. I’d stay up superlate—at least until midnight, if not one or two o’clock in the morning—especially when I got back from tournaments because I had to make up all this work and tests. I’m just glad that we won state.”
In the fall Lee enters Stanford on a golf scholarship. She’s looking forward to the collegiate competition but has her eye on the pros. One option is to pursue the same path as Alison Lee, a 2013 graduate of Valencia High School who earned an LPGA card after a record-setting season at UCLA and remains enrolled in school. “My ultimate goal is to become a professional player,” Andrea says.
She scoops Toki into her arms and stands up—right in front of the wall on which pencil marks show how tall she’s grown over the years. Then there’s the matter of personal development. “I’m becoming more independent, which is a little bit sad because I’ve always relied on my parents,” she says. “My parents have done so much for me, I feel like I’ve taken it for granted. I think a big factor in college will be learning how to be fully on my own.”