CME Group Tour Championship
Alison Lee says she has Fred Couples (?!) to thank for her LPGA resurgence
Alison Lee waves on the 18th green during the second round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
Douglas P. DeFelice
NAPLES, Fla. — Another message from Alison Lee's biggest fan pops up on her phone. "Hey Mrs. Monster, you made all those birdies today," it reads, like one of many sent to her over the last few months.
The fan is 15-time PGA Tour winner Fred Couples, and his belief in her game has finally given Lee the self-confidence that has unlocked the 28-year-old's potential, fueling one of the best stretches of her career. On Friday, the Los Angeles native shot an eight-under-par 64 that followed an opening 66 to hold the co-lead with Nasa Hataoka at 14 under in the CME Group Tour Championship.
"I'm going to get emotional because he's been so supportive," Lee said. "To see someone like that, a legend like that, watch me play golf and tell me how good I am, it's surreal to think that he's telling me how good am.
"For the longest time, like I said, I didn't believe it myself."
Lee met Couples at the Berenberg Invitational Pro-Am in New York in September, where the two played together. She shared her story, going from a rookie making the Solheim Cup in 2015 and falling to provisional status and making starts on the Epson Tour in 2021 to continue playing, and why the nine-year LPGA veteran didn't believe in herself. Couples shared his own stories and complimented her play, and Lee thought that was the end of their time together.
Days later, Lee's phone received a text from the 64-year-old, with Couples reaching out to a friend to get her number.
Starting at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship only a few weeks later, Couples began texting Lee, turning into her Ted Lasso figure with relentless messages about how good of a player she is, and that Lee should believe in herself.
However, it took until the BMW Ladies Championship, almost a month after they started texting, for the 2002 Masters champion's uplifting messages to sink in.
Alison Lee lines up a putt on the 18th green during the second round of the CME Group Tour Championship.
Douglas P. DeFelice
"He just was hammering into me like you need to believe," said Lee, who is winless on the LPGA. "You're a good player. You need to go out there and believe you're the sh-- and you can do it."
Since the BMW in South Korea, Lee has played some of the best golf of her career. She is a combined 46 under par over the last 10 rounds, averaging 66.9 over her last three starts, with two runner-up finishes. At the end of October, in the Ladies European Tour’s Aramco Team Series in Saudi Arabia, Lee set the tour's 36-hole scoring record, blitzing the field with a 61-61-65 performance to win by eight strokes.
"I knew she always had it in her," close friend Nelly Korda said. “She's just such a pure player. She hits it good, putts it really well. And for her to come back this kind of late in her career has been really, really exciting to see and I think only great things are going to be coming ahead."
It's a complete reversal of fortune for Lee from the nadir of her career in 2021. Following a standout rookie season in 2015, when Lee played her way onto the U.S. Solheim Cup team through the Rolex Women's World Rankings, the UCLA alum didn't continue her star trajectory, playing well enough to keep her card but rarely ending up in contention. In 2019, a cold spell of missing eight cuts in 11 starts pushed her to conditional status. With no chance to improve her status during 2020 due to the LPGA's rule changes due to COVID-19, Lee began the 2021 season making a few starts on the Symetra Tour.
At that point, Lee felt so low about her game that she figured she only had a few more years of play remaining. Competing week to week and not ending up in contention drained Lee of her passion for the sport. Instead of thinking about winning, Lee deliberated more about her post-playing career and taking a two-year break from doing anything.
Now, in contention in her 174th career LPGA start and armed with the fervent faith of one of the game's greats, Lee's sole focus is finally getting her first tour victory.
"I want to come out here and win, and I haven't done that on the LPGA Tour yet," Lee said. "Hopefully can come soon. Now I truly believe it's possible and I can."