NCAA West Regional

When: Thursday through Saturday (18 holes daily).

Where: Stanford Golf Course (6,084 yards, par-71), Stanford, Calif.

The field: 18 teams, including No. 9 Colorado, No. 1 USC, No. 2 Arkansas-Fayetteville and No. 3 Stanford. Six individuals also will compete.

Notable: The top six teams and three individuals who are not members of those teams from each of four regionals advance to the NCAA Championship Finals.

Anne Kelly remembers clearly the first time she watched Esther Lee play golf.

The head coach of the University of Colorado women's program was attending an amateur event years ago, and the buzz Lee was creating proved difficult to miss.

"She was probably one of the top three players in amateur golf," Kelly said. "She's one of those kids who had maybe 50 coaches watching her."

Lee never fit the profile of the sort of recruit who ultimately chooses Boulder — top-10 type talents from Southern California tend to stay close to home. Lee, though, initially chose Duke. And when things didn't quite work out for Lee after just one season with the Blue Devils, Kelly received an email she couldn't quite believe.

And with that unremarkable beginning Lee's thus-far remarkable career at CU began. The junior will lead the Buffs into their third consecutive NCAA Regional tournament on Thursday at Stanford, with CU seeking its first berth in the NCAA finals since 2012 at the completion of the three-day tournament.


"I got the email and I looked at the name... I immediately sent it to my assistant Brent Franklin and said, 'Brent, is this who I think it is?' " Kelly said. "I was on the phone as soon as I could reach her. The minute I talked to her I got the sense that this was a great kid and maybe it just wasn't a perfect fit at Duke.

"My gut reaction was it was somebody I'd really like to have on my team — not only because she's a great player, but she's a really great kid."

CU proved to be a significant attraction to Lee, who was born in Pueblo and still has dozens of extended family members who live in Colorado. She has been a model of consistency since joining the Buffs' program, becoming the first CU player to get named to the All-Pac-12 first team in 2015 since the Buffs joined the league.

Lee has continued that pace this spring, posting a team-best 10 top-20 finishes while adding another All-Pac-12 honor.

"I think I'm more comfortable. I don't feel this outrageous pressure like I have to shoot 65 every time I stand on the first tee," Lee said. "I think the last two years I've just become more comfortable with my game, more trusting of my game. I'm not as nervous and I don't doubt myself as much as I did as a freshman (at Duke) or when I was younger."

Lee finished in a tie for 18th at the Pac-12 finals while senior teammate Alexis Keating posted her second consecutive fifth-place finish, helping CU to a fifth-place mark in the team standings. The Buffs will need a similar combined effort this week to become one of the top six teams to earn automatic bids for the NCAA finals.

"In order for us to make it to nationals, I know that every single girl here is a good player, but we haven't all necessarily all played well together at the same time," Lee said. "For us to make it through to nationals, we're going to really have to focus and play well together as a team every day."

Pat Rooney: or