Craig Lee, who flirted with a first 59 on the European Tour as he came within a whisker of winning on the circuit, has called time on his career as a touring professional.
The 40-year-old made his farewell appearance on the circuit in last week’s Andalucia Valderrama Masters, having decided he wants to spend more time at home with his family.
“I will potter around in Scotland, so I am not retiring altogether, but it is the end of Tour life for me,” Lee told The Scotsman of a decision that sees him fall just short of playing in 200 European Tour events.
The highlight of his career undoubtedly came in the 2013 European Masters in Switzerland, where the Stirling man ripped up the Crans-sur-Sierre course in the third round. He stormed to the turn in 28, eight-under-par, before picking up another shot at the 10th. A dropped shot at 12th was followed by birdies at the 13th and 14th, before parring in for a 10-under-par 61.
The former Scottish Boys’ Stroke-Play champion added a bogey-free 67 in the final round for a 20-under-total, only to see that matched by Thomas Bjorn, who then birdied the first extra hole to claim the title for a second time in three years.
Consolation for Lee came in the shape of a career-best cheque for around £220,000, helping him finish 59th in that season’s Race to Dubai, where he clung on to his card for the next two campaigns before agonisingly falling a spot short of the eventual safety zone 12 months ago.
“That event in Switzerland will always stick in my mind,” he recalled. “It’s my proudest moment because it showed I could perform under that sort of pressure. But, at the same time, it’s one that perhaps got away due to getting so close to winning.”
Earlier in the year, Lee confessed he wasn’t convinced he could put his heart and soul into getting back on the main Tour after losing his full playing privileges at the end of last season. “It’s a combination of things, really,” he added of why he feels now is the time to call it a day on Tour, joining two of his compatriots, Andrew McArthur and George Murray, in making the same decision over the past 12 months.
“Home life is changing so I want to spend more time with our three-year-old daughter, Ellie. My body, meanwhile, isn’t up to the level it needs to be for me to put in the quantity of practice required for me to compete.
“I know I still have the game to compete, which makes it slightly frustrating. I was still able to go out and shoot the occasional good round when the body was in decent fettle, but I was unable to work hard enough to keep that consistency going for four rounds.
“My wrist was a massive problem last year. It’s a degenerative thing, unfortunately. An operation is the only solution and the success rate on wrists isn’t great. Did I really want to struggle through with medical exemptions in the last two or three years of my career? I think not.”
Unfortunately for Lee, who won three times between the EPD Tour and PGA EuroPro Tour as he was climbing up the ladder, his final appearance was a missed cut at Valderrama. “It was quite emotional,” he admitted, before revealing how a passenger on the flight home had made him realise he’d chiselled out a decent career.
“When you are still playing, you are concentrating on goals and probably never really feel self-satisfaction. It’s not until you actually finish up that you get that and someone on the plane said, ‘it’s been a great run for you’. You know something, he was right. I am quite proud of what I’ve done in the game.”
The man who pipped him in Switzerland echoed that. “I remember well the tussle I had with Craig at Crans-sur-Sierre,” said Bjorn, Europe’s current Ryder Cup captain. “He did well to make par from the fairway bunker at the first extra hole, but I managed to hole for birdie from 12 feet for the win. He was a good player and somebody I always enjoyed being partnered with on Tour. I wish him well for whatever direction his career now takes him.”
That will involve some teaching. “I’m getting a purpose-built studio built on the side of my house and I’ll be based there,” said Lee. “I will play a wee bit in Scotland, but not if I’m struggling round in three or four-over!”