kh-lee-byron-nelson-4-us.png
USATSI

MCKINNEY, Texas -- Twelve months ago, when K.H. Lee stood on the 18th green at TPC Craig Ranch preparing to win the 2021 AT&T Byron Nelson, history was being made. His winning score of 25 under for the tournament was the lowest in the history of an event defined by low scoring in recent years. Twelve months later, Lee not only found himself hosting the trophy again but cashing a much larger $1.5 million check for his efforts.

This time, on a crystal clear afternoon with temperatures that flirted with triple digits, Lee joined a trio of golf royalty -- Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and the late Sam Snead -- as repeat winners of the Byron Nelson after dazzling once again in the PGA Tour's first stop of the North Texas swing.

"It's amazing," Lee said of the feat. "I can't believe it. Just hopefully people remember my name."

They certainly will remember Lee in Lone Star State golf circles as he held off a stacked leaderboard featuring the likes of Justin Thomas, Joaquin Neimann, 54-hole leader Sebastian Munoz and hometown favorite Jordan Spieth.

However, it was beating his own score from a year ago that proved to be the most important edge in Lee's game.

Lee fired a 9-under 63 in the final round for a winning score of 26 under, besting his own Bryon Nelson tournament record from 2021 by a single stroke. He held off Spieth by one thanks to some clutch putts aided by a recent change of equipment. 

Having recently made the change to an Odyssey O-Works 2-ball fang putter, Lee likely found his new favorite club once Sunday's round came to a close. Needing up-and-downs for par on both the par-4 16th and par-3 17th to maintain an outright lead, Lee sunk putts of roughly 6 feet and 12 feet to hold his edge. He carded a birdie on the reachable par-5 18th to set the new tournament scoring record.

"[I changed putters] when I set up not square -- sometimes closed, sometimes open -- a couple months ago," Lee said. "But I tried a big head, two-ball putter that makes it look more square [and] easier to check for when I line up. It's more square, and then that's what helped with my stroke."

A prayer or two also may have assisted, especially on No. 17.

"I know it's a very important putt to make," Lee said. "Jordan and a lot of guys are coming just one [group] behind, and I know a lot of guys made a birdie at 18. So, I need[ed] to make the putt. … I prayed and then made the putt."

While Lee sunk the putts that mattered as the breeze picked up on the back nine, Spieth saw key chances go by the wayside. There was an unlikely three-putt bogey on the par-4 10th, a miscue Spieth blamed on the wind. He later had two prime chances to tying Lee for the lead, but an eagle putt within 15 feet on the par-5 12th burned the edge, and Spieth was unable to card birdie on the par-3 17th after his tee shot settled within 9 feet of the pin. 

"We had [the wind] blowing 15-18 [mph] our last 10 or 11 holes, so [Lee's 63] this afternoon, especially the last closing stretch of holes, is just a phenomenal score," Spieth said. "I think, when the day started, I would have wanted to be at 25 under standing on the 18th tee. So, I had a chance to do that with that putt on 17 and just kind of, it was just pumping into [the wind], and it just dove across the hole."

Rick Gehman, Kyle Porter, Greg DuCharme and Mark Immelman recap the AT&T Byron Nelson and lookahead to the PGA Championship at Southern Hills. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.

Some players expected the course would show its teeth more than it did last May, but that wasn't the case. Lee's win marked the fourth consecutive time a record score was set or matched at the Byron Nelson, even with a change in course a couple years ago.

Sunday's festivities featured some golfers making unlikely runs to the top in an attempt to steal the spotlight. Xander Schauffele opened Sunday nine shots off the lead before charging with a 9-under 61 that ultimately resulted in an improbable top-five finish at 23 under. 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama dazzled with a 10-under 62; he spent a portion of the afternoon tied for the lead before finishing T3.

Given their early starts, time wasn't on their sides. Schauffele made it clear he did not intend to wait in the clubhouse as the leader given the scoring trends at Craig Ranch and how much golf others had left to play.

"It kind of seems to be the trend out here on Tour," he said.. "You think 6 [under] or 7 under is a good round, which it is, but some guy will shoot 9 [under] or 10 under and then all of a sudden you're sitting they're saying, OK, I guess that's kind of what the new par is.'"

Thomas similarly didn't see much to brag about Saturday when he shot an 8-under 64 in the third round before firing a Sunday 67 to finish T5 with Schauffele and Ryan Palmer. Still, contending one week ahead of the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills is something about which Thomas and others in his camp won't complain.

"I just am not doing anything special," Thomas said Saturday. "I'm far from my best stuff. I'm managing my game well. … Sometimes it's fun when you're able to be in contention in a tournament without your best stuff."

Same goes for Spieth. He now heads to the PGA Championship posting first- and second-place finishes across his last two starts. While Sunday marked his best finish at the Byron Nelson since first appearing in 2010 as a senior at Dallas Jesuit, he's still hungry to win his hometown tournament. 

"I love playing at home," Spieth said. "I would love to win it some day. … It would be nice to close one out. But, again, [I] shot 5 under; [it] wasn't playing easy today, and [Lee] went out and shot 9 under right in front of us. So, sometimes that happens."

With three years still remaining on Craig Ranch's contract as Byron Nelson host, the tournament preceding golf's second major of the season is unlikely to lose its fast-growing reputation as a birdie fest.

"The greens are pure … [and] we're getting a perfect lie every time in the fairway," said James Hahn, who shot an 11-under 61 Saturday and finished T9 at 21 under. "As long as you're in the fairway, I feel like every hole can be a birdie opportunity."

In the end, no player capitalized on those "72 birdie opportunities" more than Lee, who carded 25 of them plus two eagles en route to his victory. And just like 2021, Lee enters golf's second major on a victorious note.