CRAIG Lee boarded the “Chubby Charter”, the name jokingly given to the flight that left Antalya last night bound for Dubai.
After a nerve-jangling day, the Stirling man was almost as happy as Victor Dubuisson by squeezing into this week’s DP World Tour Championship in the Emirate.
Lying 61st in the Race to Dubai heading into the £4.3 million Turkish Airlines Open, Lee had been inside the all-important top 60 in the projected standings for three days after barely putting a foot wrong on the Montgomerie Maxx Royal in Belek.
When one slack blow at the sixth in the final round led to him dropping four shots in three holes, he was back out again at the turn, meaning the flight he had booked back to Scotland looked more likely than the special charter arranged by tournament promoter Andrew “Chubby” Chandler heading to the UAE.
Even after digging deep to bag four birdies in a flawless back nine of 33 for a closing 71 and an 11-under-par total, Lee wasn’t sure he’d done enough but, after an agonising wait for an hour or so, it was a case of mission accomplished for the 36-year-old.
In tying for 36th and securing a cheque for £29,496, Lee jumped to 58th, thereby securing his place in the season-ending finale by just under £14,000 as both he and South African Garth Mulroy climbed into the cut-off zone at the expense of Dane Soren Kjeldsen and Englishman Danny Willett.
While Paul Lawrie, despite closing rounds of 66 and 69, fell frustratingly short in 63rd, Lee was delighted with his achievement and will now join three other fellow Scots – Stephen Gallacher (18th), Scott Jamieson (31st) and Marc Warren (32nd) – when the European Tour’s new “Final Series” comes to an exciting conclusion on the Greg Norman-designed Earth Course at Jumeirah Estates later this week.
“I was feeling pretty low at the turn as a bad drive down six went into the water, I then three-putted seven and didn’t get up and down at eight and, before you know it, I’ve dropped four shots,” said the 2009 Northern Open champion. “But I was pleased with the way I hung in over the back nine as I must have had a chance on every hole bar the 12th.
“Making it to Dubai is definitely satisfying given the circumstances and a lot different to last year, when I finished 115th on the money-list. That’s proper pressure as your whole career is on the line. It wasn’t much fun on that back nine today, but it was certainly a lot easier trying to keep my card.
“I had a flight booked to go home, but it is much nicer flying east than west and I might celebrate with a little sherry or something on the flight to Dubai to help me sleep.”
He deserves a tipple or two, having secured his place at the European Tour’s top table after refusing to give up on his dream despite effectively finding himself relegated two divisions when he failed to retain his card as a rookie in 2008.
It meant he was back at the bottom of the ladder but, after seeing his confidence boosted again by wins on both the Tartan Tour and PGA EuroPro Tour, Lee was then able to use the Challenge Tour as a stepping stone back to the promised land.
“I would go right back to winning at Bovey Castle [in Devon] at EuroPro level,” he replied to being asked to pick out the career-changing moment over the last five years. “A win like that when you are on a downward spiral is quite a confident booster.
“If you look at my career since then, it’s just gone one way. I did well on the Challenge Tour and then up to the main Tour and managed to keep my card. Now I’ve got into the final of the Race to Dubai so milestones like that are now the standard.”
Two years after finishing runner-up in the Tour Championship, Lawrie was bitterly disappointed as his final roll of the dice failed to deliver a double six, though the Aberdonian actually reckoned he needed a 64 in the closing round to climb his required four spots.
“Yes and no,” he answered to being asked if he was happy to be going home, having indicated earlier in the week that he was ready for his season to end. “I wanted to play next week – who wouldn’t? But it’s been a disappointing year. Not to make next week is shocking really for the tournaments I’ve been in. The HSBC Champions is about the only big one I’ve missed.”
At the business end in the Race to Dubai, what looked to be a march to victory for Swede Henrik Stenson, bidding to become the latest player to do the double after already winning the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup this year, when the “Final Series” has tightened up considerably.
Stenson, who slipped to seventh behind Frenchman Dubuisson after a closing 69, still leads the way, heading into this week’s finale. But, having followed up his fifth place in China last week, with a share of third spot here, US Open champion Justin Rose has closed the gap to less than £180,000.
“I feel like it could have been even my week this week the way I played and the chances I gave myself,” said Stenson, who, with bonus money up for grabs, can still mathematically be overtaken by anyone else in the top ten but, realistically, has Rose, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter to keep at bay. “I’m still happy with the week, though, and, thanks to a few of the other guys, I’ve still got the lead heading into the last week.”