After injury battle, Tain Lee again comes up clutch at Q-School

After injury battle, Tain Lee again comes up clutch at Q-School
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After advancing through the second stage of PGA Tour Q-School last week in Savannah, Georgia, Tain Lee celebrated fittingly: He drove down to TPC Sawgrass.

Lee played the Dye’s Valley Course, one of two host layouts for next month’s final stage, and got a tour of the facilities. He was especially wowed when he asked where he could grab a quick bite, and the assistant pro ducked into a cafeteria and returned with a couple breakfast sandwiches.

“Everything was so grand,” Lee said. “They couldn’t have made you feel like more of a true member.”

The perks of carrying a card.

Lee’s qualifying for final stage didn’t just ensure that the 33-year-old Irvine, California, resident would at least keep conditional Korn Ferry Tour status throughout next year following an injury-riddled season. Lee also now has a shot at a PGA Tour card, as the top five finishers and ties at the Dec. 14-17 qualifying event will receive one of those lucrative prizes.

To be so close to the big show is a big deal for Lee, a former D-III national individual champ at Claremont-Mudd-Scripps who for years practiced out of a $30-per-month public range, where he’d empty bucket after bucket of yellow golf balls. Lee has spent much of the last decade-plus toiling around on the developmental tours, and after finally holding onto his KFT card two seasons ago, Lee suffered the most serious injury of his career and missed the last 14 tournaments of the year.

While Lee was making five of his first six cuts to begin the year on the KFT, he developed a disc issue in his neck. The pinched nerve wasn’t too painful – just some numbness and the occasional jolt – so he played through it, albeit needing to compensate by altering his swing.

“My left arm couldn’t come off my chest, so I was using my lower back more,” Lee explained. “And then I threw out my lower back.”

At that point, Lee had to roll out of bed, and he couldn’t put on his own socks or underwear. He had logged 11 events, the last five either a MC or WD, when he decided to finally shut it down after the UNC Health Championship in early June.

Lee wouldn’t play again until first stage in October.

“You start the season, and your hopes are high – and I finished last year on a very positive note, I was playing very well,” Lee said. “So, you’re kind of in denial that it’s not going the way you want it to. You keep trying to go and then it hits you, like, I couldn’t even do it if I tried.”

Lee admittedly struggles with self-belief, constantly questioning himself with, “Am I good enough?” With bad golf on the brain and going through a long rehab, there were days when Lee wondered whether a comeback was even possible.

His family, including his wife, Christina, and his two sons, Tobi and Tatum, helped push him through. His dad, Spencer, too.

“My dad is always giving me these small reminders that give me so much inspiration, that remind me of the success that I’ve had,” Lee said. “Whereas I’ll see a lot of the bad performances, he’ll always point out the good ones.”

Good memories such as when Lee birdied the final hole to get through a pre-qualifier for the 2021 Farmers Insurance Open, then advanced out of the Monday qualifier and in his first PGA Tour round, led the field in strokes gained: tee-to-green.

Or when he again Monday qualified later that season and contended at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree.

Or when he canned a 20-footer on the last at 2021 KFT Q-School’s final stage to earn 12 guaranteed starts.

Or when he sank a closing 12-footer at last year’s KFT regular-season finale in Omaha to narrowly keep his card and sneak into the Finals.

“Every time I’m in that situation, it still feels just as impossible as the last time,” Lee said. “But there has been a lot of validation these past two years. … Naturally, I’m not one to wake up in the morning and look in the mirror and be like, oh yeah, I’m one of the best golfers in the world. I’m more like, I have to prove it to myself, grind and find out.”

Upon returning from injury, Lee quickly discovered his clutch gene never left him. First stage at Bear Creek in Murrieta, California, marked his first 72-hole event since June, and he had only recently started practicing after going three months without hitting a shot. Lee was anxious about his game and his body, and he could feel the intensity of the situation.

With 11 holes to go in the final round, Lee was hovering around the cut line before he birdied four holes coming in and comfortably advanced.

And then at second stage, Lee battled through less-than-ideal weather at The Landings Club in Savannah before the skies cleared way from some low scores the final day – two 62s were recorded.

Lee notched a 68 of his own, a 4-under round that was punctuated by yet more Lee heroics – a hooped 40-foot birdie putt on the final hole to push Lee inside the cut.

“I let a little emotion out,” Lee said. “That was surreal.”

Lee was already banking on 12 KFT starts next year via a major medical, though with nothing after that should he fail to satisfy that extension. Punching his ticket to final stage meant Lee would have something to fall back on, and now, the only way he can improve his status for next year is by earning his PGA Tour card.

Early that next morning, Lee, still wired, awoke at 3:30 a.m. and found himself recounting all his successes – only this time, it didn’t take a phone call. And by the next evening, he was home and planning a trip to the San Diego Zoo with his boys to kick off Thanksgiving week. After that, of course, it would be back to practice.

No longer confined to that public range, Lee belongs to a couple nice clubs these days, plus his TPC perks from being a KFT member.

Yet, he’s not lost the eagerness to grind away and prove to himself that he’s right where he belongs.

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