Coming into today, South Korea has had bragging rights to the long-running AT&T Byron Nelson, with one of their own having held the title for two years and three days. Now, after four rounds of this year’s Texas-hosted event? It’s still South Korea.
A torrid early Sunday start by little-known Seoul native K.H. Lee, as the Tour made a frantic effort to get ahead of bad weather, made for a relatively dull afternoon, and was enough for the 29-year-old to snag his first Tour victory, a record-setting three-stroke triumph over Sam Burns.
The tournament was cancelled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, one year after it was one by Lee’s fellow countryman Sung Kang.
After a flurry of exceptionally low scores highlighted the first three rounds of the event that honors the legendary five-time major champion, Lee came into the final round at 19-under-par, one stroke back of Burns – who was in hot form after winning his most recent start two weeks ago at the Valspar Championship.
With just four career top-10s in 70 career starts, mostly spread across three seasons, Lee was relatively inexperienced in Tour contention. In addition, he had to handle the pressure of a rushed day: with storms on the horizon, tee times were pushed up significantly, with Lee going off at 9am local time.
Going to threesomes for the final round also put former Masters champ Charl Schwartzel with Lee and Burns. And if THAT was not enough, just two back in the penultimate group was resurgent, overwhelming crowd favorite Jordan Spieth, a Texas native, and 11-time Tour winner Matt Kuchar.
The final-round field avoided especially significant weather delays – there was just one that lasted roughly two hours when the final group was on the 15th hole, and steady, rain of varying intensity did fall most of the day on TPC Craig Ranch, a new course for the PGA Tour.
What the field was not able to eschew, however, was the one-man domination unleashed by an unassuming character taking advantage of his best chance yet for golf glory.
While the favorites kind of plodded early, Lee absolutely exploded out of the gate, carding birdies on Nos. 2, 3, and 4, before adding two more on 6 and 8 to reach 5-under for the day with just 10 holes to go.
From there, Lee had the luxury of essentially going into prevent defense. As he had done all week, with only a single bogey over his first 54 holes, he made few mistakes down the stretch.
Occasionally, an opponent would get hot and appear to be on the verge of threatening Lee, but at no point did it feel like he was anywhere close to feeling the heat. Lee bogeyed the 10th, and then had one birdie to five pars over the next six holes.
After the weather delay, he went bogey-birdie-birdie to shoot 6-under 66, which meant a tournament-record 25-under, three clear of Burns, and four clear of anyone else.
There were two very low rounds shot, but those came courtesy of Patton Kizzire, who began the final day in a share of 25th place, and Daniel Berger, who started T18. The Kizzire 63 and the Berger 64 were good enough to reach 21-under for the week and tie for third with Scott Stallings.
The victory undoubtedly changes Lee’s career-trajectory, but among the many pluses is that it alters his short-term travel schedule. Originally an alternate, he clinched a spot in next week’s PGA Championship, being held at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. He had qualified for just two past majors, twice reaching, and missing the cut, at the U.S. Open. He does not figure to be among the favorites for the second major of the year. It should be noted though, that he was not among the favorites at TPC Craig Ranch either.
AT&T Byron Nelson: Final Top 10
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. K.H. Lee -25 (-6)
2. Sam Burns -22 (-2)
3. Patton Kizzire -21 (-9)
3. Daniel Berger -21 (-8)
3. Scott Stallings -21 (-6)
3. Charl Schwartzel -21 (-4)
7. Troy Merritt -19 (-7)
7. Joseph Bramlett -19 (-4)
9. Jhon Vegas -18 (-5)
9. Seamus Power -18 (-2)
9. Doc Redman -18 (-2)
9. Jordan Spieth -18 (-1)
17. Matt Kuchar -16
17. Will Zalatoris -16
21. Lee Westwood -15
21. Marc Leishman -15
34. Jon Rahm -13
39. Hideki Matsuyama -12
47. Scottie Scheffler -11
47. Ryan Palmer -11
47. Sung Kang -11
55. Si Woo Kim -10
55. Aaron Wise -10
55. Cam Champ -10
55. Bryson DeChambeau -10
How K.H. Lee Won The AT&T Byron Nelson
At no point this week did Lee look unprepared for the challenge of a new host venue, opening the tournament with a pair of 7-under 65s.
However, after a pedestrian start to his third round, and with Burns threatening to capture a large 54-hole lead, Lee went on a late tear, with four birdies over his final seven Saturday holes to get into solo second with 18 to go. He clearly did not lose momentum overnight starting with a similar birdie blitz.
Lee’s 28 birdies for the week were second in the field, and he only offset three of them with bogeys (nothing worse), and two of those came on Sunday when he had a big lead. He did not hit long (T72 in driving distance) or accurately (T81 in fairways hit), but his irons were pristine as he was fifth in greens in regulation, and second in both strokes gained: approach-the-green and strokes gained: tee-to-green.
Finishing ninth in strokes gained: putting was a nice surprise, as he has been awful in that regard for the season.
K.H. Lee’s Winning Stats
Driving: 291.9 (T72)
Fairways: 37/56 66.07% (T81)
Greens: 58/72, 80.56% (T5)
Putts/Per GIR: 1.603 (6th)
Scores: 28 Birdies, 41 Pars, 3 Bogeys
What the Byron Nelson Win Means For K.H. Lee
Lee has been very streaky in his short career. He was terrible from September-on in 2020 (the start of the 2021 season) with five missed cuts and nothing better than a T46 in his first nine starts.
He has looked much better in the new year, though, and got some experience in contention when he finished T2 in February’s Waste Management Phoenix Open, where he did not lose as much as he was overtaken by four late Brooks Koepka birdies.
Again, e got in the early mix at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship, opening with a 66, before a Friday 77 doomed him to a T58 finish. This experience should be invaluable to his future.
Lee had never been in the top 100 of the OWGR, but is well inside it now. The win moves him 137th to 59th, overtaking big names such as Jason Day (65th), Ian Poulter (67th), and Keegan Bradley (73rd). He even overtook Tiger Woods (103rd) and Phil Mickelson (115th), although that is considered less of an accomplishment than it once would have been.
K.H. Lee’s 2021 PGA Tour Season
Cuts Made: 20
Wins: 1 (Byron Nelson)
Additional Top 10: 1
Earnings: $2,523,153 (29)
FedExCup Pts: 930 (29)
World Rank Before/After: 137/59
Sunday’s Byron Nelson Stars
Daniel Berger’s 8-under 64 featured nine birdies to just one bogey, as he moved 15 spots up the final leaderboard. While it has been a long time since Kizzire posted such a finish, this is the 8th time Berger has posted a top-5 finish on the PGA Tour since February of 2020, with two of those being victories, most recently at February’s AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
The Florida State product remains an intriguing betting option at Kiawah Island next week.
Patton Kizzire has become somewhat of a forgotten man since winning twice early in 2018, but is having an under-the-radar comeback season in 2021.
After just two top 10s over the 2019 and 2020 seasons, the 6’5” Auburn product has four top 10s in 2021, and his T3 at Craig Ranch is his best result since the second of those two wins. His final-round 63, which included 10 birdies, was the lowest score in the Sunday field, and tied several others for the second-lowest round of the week, beating only by Burns’ second-round 62.
As physically imposing as Kizzire is, it would surprise most to hear that his best club this year has been his putter: he ranks 14th on Tour in strokes gained: putting.
Luke Donald once ranked No. 1 in the OWGR, but after missing the cut in 11 of his last 12 starts (with the only made weekend resulting in a T54), the 43-year-old from England came into the week ranked 658th. Fortunately for him and his fans, though, he showed that he might have some more life in the professional ranks.
Donald shot a 5-under 67 on Sunday, to move 12 spots up the final leaderboard from T25 to T13. He had three rounds of 67 or better on the week, only being derailed by a Friday 73. He was third in the field for the week in strokes gained: approach-the-green.
Sunday’s Stumbles at TPC Craig Ranch
In last month’s Valero Texas Open, the last time the Tour was in the Lone Star State, Jordan Spieth ended a four-year winless drought, the highlight of a stellar eight-week stretch where he posted seven finishes inside the top 15.
Spieth’s T9 at Craig Ranch extends that hot streak, and will make him among the favorites at next week’s PGA Championship, but he had to be disappointed with his Sunday at the Byron Nelson, shooting a 1-under 71 to finish seven back of Lee.
After birdies on Nos. 5 and 6, it looked like he might make a run, but a bogey on 7 deflated him, and he carded just one birdie the rest of the day.
After his third-round 66, Matt Kuchar stated that he was back to playing “Matt Kuchar golf”. He is likely re-thinking that third-person statement after a Sunday 1-over 73 that dropped him from T3 to T17. He had just one birdie on the final day after carding 22 over the first three, and he was a disaster with his irons.
The 42-year-old should be encouraged, however, that he has posted four finishes of T18 or better in his last five starts, going into the PGA Championship still lacking a major championship on his resume.
Spieth and Kuchar may have been big disappointments in the penultimate group, but neither actually was the worst among their threesome. That dishonor goes to Sweden’s Alex Noren, who shot a 2-over 74 to fall from T3 to T21. Noren was in second place after opening 65-64, and was well on his way to his first top 10 since last year’s FedExCup playoffs. He went 70-74 over an even-par weekend where he dropped from 17 birdies on the first two days, to just four over the last two.
Highly-Ranked and Disappointing
As a whole, the AT&T Byron Nelson was a flop for the biggest names in the field, aside from Spieth, who even struggled on Sunday. World No. 3 Jon Rahm was never in the mix despite not shooting any rounds worse than his 2-under 70 on Sunday. His approaches left a lot to be desired as he finished T34, which could cause some concern for next week after he missed the cut at last week’s Wells Fargo Championship.
World No. 4 Bryson DeChambeau was a complete non-factor as well. He shot a bogey-free 3-under 69 on Sunday, but it was only good enough to get him to T55, which was disappointing after an eventful weekend at last week’s Wells Fargo.
World No. 15 Hideki Matsuyama was making his first start since winning The Masters last month, his first career major. He did make the weekend at Craig Ranch, but a 2-under 70 on Sunday only elevated him to T39, and he was inconsistent in every element of his game, except around the greens, where he was terrible all four days.
“Still can’t believe now. But after this time, more believe me, more strong my mind, so I think… perfect for me”.
–K.H. Lee, AT&T Byron Nelson Champion