Craig Lee has long been able to re-grip a 9-iron but now he’s got a handle on Tour survival too
YOUR starter for ten. Amid the plethora of impressive golfing achievements boasted by those gifted enough to hold European Tour cards for the 2013-14 season, one man stands alone.
Amid the champions of this, that and the other, only one player can lay claim to a prestigious title none of his fellow professionals will ever come close to holding. Step forward Craig Lee, Scottish Club-maker of the Year 2008.
To be fair, not many of the 36-year-old Stirling native’s peers on the European circuit would be much of a match for him in that particular area of the golf industry. Only a few modern tour professionals have gone through PGA training and so are capable of even changing a grip. Paul Lawrie and Ian Poulter spring immediately to mind but there aren’t many others. Lee, however, has always been different, a man who has always followed his own instincts during an 18-year pro career that has taken him from the selling of “Mars Bars and Pringle jumpers” in the shop at Glenbervie to, last month, the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai.
Indeed, it has been quite a journey, full of ups, downs and, at one point, a complete break from playing the game that has dominated Lee’s life. Things are starting to accelerate though. A mere four years ago, the former Scottish Boys Stroke-play and Scottish Assistants champion was surviving on a mixture of Europro – pro golf’s third division – and Tartan Tour events. Now he is playing alongside the cream of the European game. And, based on his performances in 2013, he’s getting the hang of it. Only 12 months on from retaining his card by the narrowest of margins, Lee finished a highly creditable 59th on the “Race to Dubai”. His is one of the true feelgood stories of Scottish golf over the past few years.
Perhaps just as importantly, however, Lee is a product of “Team Scottish Hydro”, the now well-established scheme (brainchild of Iain Stoddart, director of Bounce Sports Marketing) designed to relieve young players at Challenge Tour level – the second division – of the financial pressure that has seen so many fail through lack of opportunity over the years. Lee, in fact, is one of five (Callum Macaulay, Jamie McLeary, Jack Doherty and Chris Doak are the others) who have achieved promotion to the first division of European golf.
“The Hydro sponsorship is a great initiative,” says Lee. “And it has been very successful already. Had it been in place ten years ago, other players who have failed only through lack of funding would surely be on tour too. It allows guys to relax more and play with the knowledge that they will be able to get to the next event come what may.
“When I played the Challenge Tour in 2011, three of the early events were in Kenya, Columbia and India. Without the Hydro money behind me, I wouldn’t have been able to play in any of those. At that level, the next cheque so often pays for the next event. But with that pressure removed I played wherever I wanted to play. It also helped to know someone believed in my ability. That knowledge was very reassuring.”
So it was that the Craig Lee competing on the 2012 European circuit was very different from the one who had – out of the blue – done the same four years earlier.
“Looking back, 2008 was a great experience for me,” he says. “But it was obvious I wasn’t ready to play at that level. My long game was a long way from where it needed to be. I crippled myself with wayward driving. I’d miss four fairways in every round and make a double bogey almost every time. And my short game was the equivalent of a 15-handicapper relative to most on tour. Plus, my overall game was rusty after not competing for a while and I wasn’t used to the courses. So I was off as soon as I was on. The good news was that my game was picking up. And I wasn’t scared by the prospect of having nowhere to play in 2009 – I was used to having nothing.”
Three years later – armed with a more consistent and reliable technique – Lee was back on the European Tour, courtesy of his 14th-place finish on the Challenge Tour money list.
“There are basically two types of golfer on tour,” he says. “One has three or four top-five finishes per year but misses more than a few cuts. The other is steadier. He makes more cuts, finishes in the top 30 more often than not and is occasionally in the top ten.
“I’ve always wanted to be the steady guy. I certainly want to take advantage when I’m playing really well. But when I’m not, I still want to be able to get round and make the most of what I have that week. I never want to be the guy who shrugs his shoulders and comes back the next week all guns blazing. To me, that’s too much pressure, relying on a win to stay on tour.”
Lee has yet to achieve that maiden victory. But he’s been close. In Switzerland last September he lost out only after a play-off with Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, the highlight of his week in the Alps a startling third round of 61.
“That event was nothing but positive for me,” says Lee. “I walked away knowing Thomas had beaten me. I didn’t throw it away. And the 61 was special. I hit every shot straight down the pin and made nine birdies in my first ten holes. It was great to perform so well in competition.
“The thought of shooting 59 only crossed my mind on the 13th hole. When I made a birdie there I thought I might do it, especially with two par-5s to come. I did birdie the 14th but I missed the green at the next and left a tough up-and-down. I had a glance at the scoreboard and was four shots clear. So it made no sense to take the shot on. I was there to win the tournament. Shooting 59 would just have been a bonus. So I played safe, made par and moved on.”
Speaking of which, with success comes a reappraisal of future goals. And Lee is very clear about what he has in mind. Currently ranked 210th in the world, a top-50 spot is his target within the next two years. That so-far elusive tournament victory wouldn’t go amiss either. One thing he will be more aware of too, is how much golf to play.
“Last year was the first time I have ever felt physically and mentally exhausted,” he admits. “Near the end of the season I played six of seven weeks, many with long-haul flights between. You could see it in my scores. I’d start off fine but couldn’t sustain it for 18 holes. So that was a lesson.”
Clearly, there have been a few of those over the years. And while it could never be argued that the likeably down-to-earth Lee is a quick learner, history tells us he is more than likely to get there in the end.