Lydia Ko and Minjee Lee were 11-years-old when they first met at a junior tournament in Australia
Lydia Ko and Minjee Lee were 11-years-old when they first met at a junior tournament in Australia.
“That’s over half our lives ago,” said Ko, 22, prior to the LPGA’s Mediheal Championship at Lake Merced Golf Club in April.
While Ko and Lee have ties that began Down Under, they are also bound together by a course — Lake Merced, located just south of San Francisco in Daly, Calif. In 2018, Ko used a shot for the ages to help defeat Lee in a playoff at Lake Merced. Ko hit an epic 3-wood shot from the fairway — 220 yards out — that carried a tree and landed 2 feet from the hole. The shot led to an eagle putt and the win.
For the effort, Ko was honored with a plaque at the site of the shot prior to this year’s championship. During the ceremony, Lake Merced president Jeff Pero read from a local writer’s account, something to the tune of if it was one of the PGA’s top stars who hit the same shot to win a major, books would be written about the shot.
Yet, the shot, the win, and the plaque are only a chapter in an ongoing love story between Ko and Lake Merced, and, to some extent, Lee. The course has become mystically interwoven with both players.
In 2012, six years prior to their Mediheal playoff, Ko and Lee met in the U.S. Junior Girls Championship quarterfinals at Lake Merced. Lee won the match and the championship, whereupon the club members granted her an honorary membership, and placed a framed commemorative exhibit of her victory adjacent to the pro shop. Later, Lee cited Lake Merced as her favorite course in her LPGA Player Guide bio.
Often over shadowed, at least nationally, by its more heralded neighbors Olympic Club, TPC Harding Park and San Francisco Golf Club, Lake Merced shares part of that magical quadrant that stretches the border between San Francisco and Daly City.
You can actually see Olympic Club from Lake Merced, and in turn, see TPC Harding Park from Olympic. San Francisco Golf Club is slightly inland from the others, but still very close by. As a club and a course, Merced is among the top tier in California, hosting numerous USGA and other similar level tournaments, including five LPGA events. But while many private clubs of this caliber have long been highly exclusive, Lake Merced has always been particularly inclusive and reflective of the Bay Area’s diversity.
It’s also a demanding, brutish test, often played in bone chilling cold and vicious wind — yet, almost universally regarded as one of the better courses played by the LPGA.
“It’s just a great challenge, and I really love coming back here,” said Lee. “Yeah, it’s pretty special to me.”
So, what does the honorary membership entail?
“It means LMGC will always be open to welcome her back, it’s really access to golf and the facility, and to making her part of the family,” said Donna Otis, the long-time general manager at Lake Merced, who is now chief executive and general manager at The Bridges at Rancho Santa Fe. “There’s no dues or anything like that, it’s more of a rolling out of the welcome mat and Lake Merced being a gracious host.”
But as much as Lee has been welcomed and honored, the true love affair has to be that of Ko and Lake Merced. It’s as if you can almost hear the iconic bass guitar intro riff to the Temptations’ My Girlevery time she steps onto the turf. For as much as Ko loves Merced, clearly, they adore her, and she is in every respect, their girl.
She’s won three out of the five LPGA events there, noting that “this was the place where I had my first win as a Tour member,” she said. “I even have a tattoo of the date that I won here.”
In addition to her own honorary membership and permanent locker, the staff and members have gifted her with separate birthday celebrations. One year, officials had a cake waiting for her after her round, and another time, as she was coming through the tunnel, “we were down there waiting for her with a cake and sang happy birthday to her,” said Otis.
The feeling is mutual.
“This will always be a place that I love,” said Ko. “Coming back here I always get good vibes, and I love seeing familiar faces. It’s kind of like I feel they’re family. I know that no matter if I play well or not, they’re always there to clap for me.”
At the plaque ceremony, she was genuinely touched, and perhaps a little awestruck, speaking with both reverence and humor. She acknowledged that the shot was probably one of the best she had ever hit under pressure, and was well aware of its significance returning her to victory after a rocky couple of years.
“I thank you for the love,” she said to the attendees. “I have a locker here, and now a plaque on the fairway with my name — I love coming back here, I love Daly City. Maybe next time I should buy a house or something.”
And as the ceremony broke up and folks started to wander off, she lingered at the plaque with a few stragglers, fully aware of the personal import, as she quipped “maybe this is where I’ll be buried, the cherry on top”
Neither Ko nor Lee won this year’s event, but the Mediheal Championship returns to Lake Merced next year, and you can bet, so will they.
Barry Salberg, based in the San Francisco Bay area, has written about golf for over two decades. As a freelancer, his work has appeared in virtually every major golf publication, including Golf Digest, Golf Magazine, Golfweek, Golf for Women, Links, the USGA's Golf Journal, and the NorCal Golf Association's NCGA Golf.