Lee Jae-kyung finds confidence in ‘Nice Departure’

Lee Jae-kyung (24), a two-time winner on the Korean Professional Golf Association (KPGA) Korean Tour, said he has been hitting approach shots for the past eight years. His short game was like an amateur, as he often picked up a putter because he didn’t feel confident hitting wedges near the green.

After shooting a 4-under 68 with five birdies and one bogey to finish tied for the lead with Lee Tae-hoon (Canada) and Kim Min-soo in the first round of the KPGA Korean Tour’s KB Financial Live Championship (total prize money of 700 million won) at Blackstone GC (Par 72-7270 yards) in Icheon on Friday, Lee said, “My short game was good today. My approach was good, so I played with confidence that I could make par even if I didn’t hit the whole green,” said Lee.

Lee Tae-hoon looks at his ball after hitting an iron shot on the 14th hole during the first round of the KPGA KB Financial Reeve Championship on Friday. Courtesy of KPGA

Lee, who started on the 10th hole in the morning group, parred his first nine holes before picking up his first birdie of the day at the par-5 first and a long 10-meter birdie putt at the par-3 third. I bogeyed the fifth after hitting a bunker off the tee, but got one back at the sixth (par-4) and finished strong with back-to-back birdies at the eighth (par-4) and ninth (par-5).

Most pleasingly, all the short game work she did last winter paid off. In her post-match interview, Lee said, “I’m very happy with my 4-under par score. It’s the best score I’ve ever shot at Blackstone,” she said, adding, “Before, if I didn’t get the ball on the green, I was white-knuckled with the thought that I was in trouble.” He missed the cut with back-to-back 80s in 2019 and withdrew after a first-round 79 in 2021. Last year, he didn’t play at all because he wasn’t confident.

After winning the Busan Gyeongnam Open in 2019, his rookie year, and claiming the Rookie of the Year honors, he seemed to be on his way to success by winning the Genesis Championship in 2021, but he was plagued by approach shot fears. Losing confidence, he struggled last year, missing the cut in just seven of 15 events.

Last winter, he visited a coach specializing in the short game안전놀이터, learned from him and left the U.S. for a harsh training camp in Jeonhoon, South Korea. “I changed my lifestyle,” he said, “waking up at 6 a.m. and hitting the course before 7 a.m. at the latest.” His confidence has grown as he has finished in the top 10 in his last three tournaments (tied for fourth at the Maekyung Open and tied for seventh at the Woori Financial Championship-SK Telecom Open).

Even the key players who started in the second half of the field were unable to get past morning leader Lee Jae-kyung. Seo shot a 3-under 69 with six birdies and three bogeys to share fourth place with Kim Jae-ho, while Baek Seok-hyun, who is challenging for the title for the second straight week, shot a 3-over 75 with one birdie and four bogeys to start the day in the top 60. Last month’s GS Caltex Mae Kyung Open winner Chung Chan-min, who boasts a monster long drive of 370 yards, made five birdies but added two bogeys and a double bogey to drop one stroke. Defending champion Ji-ho Yang dropped two shots and started in the top 40.

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