The battle of an Australian golf star — and what she’s learned

Written by Staff Writer by Zoya Aziz, CNN

Adelaide, Australia (CNN) — Golfer Minjee Lee may be a relative newcomer to professional golf but she’s already picked up valuable lessons about fortitude and headstrong determination through her long battle with illness.

Lee first discovered that she had juvenile arthritis in April 2015 after experiencing pain at the end of her walk up a flight of stairs. By October that year she was diagnosed with NF(i) — an autoimmune condition that affects nerve cells in the joints, leading to pain, swelling and stiffness.

As it turns out, NF(i) also affects the nerves that supply the cerebellum, which prepares one’s body for movement. As a result, there are changes to the communication between the brain and spinal cord, which causes athletes to become disorientated — including Lee’s fellow golfers.

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“I don’t know if they know. The kids struggle with it because their sensory systems start to shut down,” Lee, 25, tells CNN. “The way I struggle with it is just by staying grounded.”

She was encouraged to take a break from competing — but she took the ball with both hands and returned to the game at the end of 2016 with a renewed interest in understanding the condition and the debilitating effect it has on her well-being.

“I had lots of sessions with my personal trainer and my PA (personal assistant), me sitting on a couch, doing sit ups, take-downs,” she explains. “I wanted to take it up a notch and that’s what I’ve done.”

Now Lee says she feels better physically and she’s playing better. Her optimism is driving a bit of extra momentum into this year’s LPGA Tour, after the former Amateur champion finished in a tie for 22nd place at the 2017 U.S. Women’s Open and her best professional finish came in June at the Evian Championship, where she tied for fifth.

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Academic challenge

Of course, having a college degree from the University of South Australia in Industrial Psychology helped greatly when it came to aiding her rehabilitation process and offering her a level of enlightenment that few golfers possess.

“I study hard because I feel like I’m making a difference and I’m trying to understand why I’m feeling the way I do,” she says. “Sometimes it can get a bit frustrating because you’re constantly doing the same. I like to pick away at all aspects.”

As of writing Lee had yet to secure her first LPGA Tour victory. She is ranked ninth in the world and can count twice at the top of the women’s professional golf rankings.

Her experiences in South Australia have, according to her coach who’s spent 30 years working with golfers, provided her with the context she needs.

“She’s got that Australian mentality about not giving up and the no stress attitude is very typical of Australians,” explains Danielle Oswald, head coach of the women’s team at South Australia Golf Academy. “The university environment in Adelaide gives you a different perspective, there’s not much pressure or stress. She’s got that strength. She comes from this family who know how to deal with things.”

When Lee began her search for a doctor to investigate the cause of her condition, she wasn’t aware that another country — Sri Lanka — had a similar condition called NF(i). Fortunately for Lee, her caseworker in Sri Lanka, Dr. Pasathila, was more than happy to help and offered advice on how to continue to manage the condition through an action plan that was tailored for her.

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