IT WAS Wayne Riley, the former Scottish Open champion and now by far the most excitable member of the Sky Sports golf team, who asked the question that was probably on the lips of many golf fans at the weekend.
“Where has Craig Lee been over the years if it has taken him until 36 to be challenging for a European Tour title?”
In fairness to “Radar” Riley, he knew that Lee, who came within a whisker of winning the European Masters at Crans-sur-Sierre in Switzerland before losing out in a play-off to Thomas Bjorn, had come through the Tartan Tour ranks, but that really is only half the story.
Similar in a way to Scott Henry, another member of our professional contingent to make his presence felt at the business end of a European Tour event for the first time when he finished joint-fourth in the recent Johnnie Walker Championship at Gleneagles, Lee is a perfect example of how progress in the paid ranks, in most cases anyway, doesn’t happen overnight.
It was nearly 20 years ago – at Arbroath in 1995 – that Lee, a Stirling member at the time and back living in that area, incidentally, after a spell in the Highlands, first delivered a glimpse of his talent, winning the Scottish Boys’ Stroke-Play Championship.
Three years earlier, that title had been retained by Stephen Gallacher but, while his subsequent career, which included a winning Walker Cup appearance and a smooth transition on to the European Tour, has been played out in the public glare, it has taken Lee considerably longer to earn some deserved recognition.
Like Paul Lawrie, he used the Tartan Tour to learn the art of winning, seeing successes like the Scottish Young Professionals’ Championship in 2000, the Northern Open in 2009 and four Deer Park Masters triumphs instil the confidence a player needs simply to have a chance of surviving in the cut-throat world that is professional golf.
Securing a foothold on the European Tour is one thing; staying there is another, which is why someone like David Drysdale, to name but one, deserves a lot more credit than he ever gets, having been rewarded for having a toughness to take some pretty sore knocks earlier in his career to comfortably retain his card three times in the last four years and put himself on course to do likewise again this season.
When Lee first dipped his toe in European Tour waters – in 2008 – he got off to a decent start with two top-25s in his first three events but, after making only four more cuts thereafter, he finished 186th on the money-list.
An unsuccessful trip to the Qualifying School at the end of that season left him back at square one, but there are two particular reasons why Lee, sitting 55th in the Race to Dubai after banking a career-best cheque for £205,000, doesn’t have to worry about a fraught end to the season in a battle to hang on to his card and, instead, can look forward optimistically at trying to build on last week’s effort.
His own attitude, for starters, is commendable because, under the watchful eye of his coach, Glenbervie PGA professional Steven Rosie, he has worked his socks off to reach the level where, with an all-rounded game, he can be challenging for one of the most prestigious titles in European golf.
Lee has also benefited from receiving crucial support when he needed it most. An original member of Team Scottish Hydro when it was launched in early 2011, he was able to use the comfort blanket it provided to finish 14th on the Challenge Tour that season and, after just hanging on to his main Tour card in the 115th and final spot last year, has now been able to secure a strong foothold on that circuit.
It will be more rewarding to him than the brilliant display he produced on Saturday to leave us on the edge of our seats as he flirted with an historic 59 because, 17 years after turning professional, Lee now knows that he has earned the right to be sitting at the top table at European golf.
His journey is an example of why the likes of Lloyd Saltman, Andrew McArthur, Jamie McLeary, Wallace Booth, James Byrne, Michael Stewart and Paul O’Hara, the newly-crowned Scottish Young Professionals champion after having to re-evaluate his short-term goals, should never give up their dreams and work harder than ever to make sure they come true one day, too.
Fortune favoured bold US move
HOW ironic that the United States were carried over the finishing line in the Walker Cup at the weekend by the back-to-back singles points delivered on Sunday at the splendid National Golf Links of America by Todd White and Nathan Smith.
White, 45, and Smith, 35, both went into the match against holders Great Britain & Ireland under enormous pressure, having secured the two spots that had been mandated for mid-amateurs – ie players 25 and over – by the United States Golf Association.
The bold move had raised eyebrows on the other side of the Atlantic, where some of those close to the amateur game and, in particular, the college scene felt the pair were keeping better younger players out of the team for such an important contest.
On reflecting on a bitterly disappointing 17-9 defeat, however, it is difficult not to come to the conclusion that the Great Britain & Ireland side, with a 27-year-old as its oldest team member and only one player with previous experience of the event, lacked someone like White and Smith in their ranks.
Welshman Nigel Edwards, who has now experienced both the feelings that come with a captaincy after being re-appointed following the win at Royal Aberdeen two years ago, played in the event four times himself and will know that better than anyone, even though he had faith in the Scot-free side at his disposal.
It was great to see players such as White and Smith enjoying their moment in the spotlight and the sooner we see the same thing happening again on this side of the Atlantic, then we can start to feel a bit more confident once again about about the values of amateur golf and the tremendous opportunities it can offer without heads having to be turned to the paid ranks.