Tain Lee had no idea where he stood on the leaderboard after finishing his second round Friday at the Palmetto Championship.
“Do you know what place I’m in?” he asked a reporter following a 3-under 68, which moved Lee, who a few days earlier was Monday-qualifying for this event, at 7 under entering the weekend at Congaree Golf Club.
“Third,” the reporter answered, leaving Lee flabbergasted.
“Yeah, that's pretty crazy,” Lee said. “That's wild.”
Things got wilder on Saturday.
Lee, a 31-year-old journeyman and former NCAA Division III individual champion, took the solo lead in just his third career PGA Tour start. Ranked No. 1,882 in the Official World Golf Ranking (that means he’s tied with every player who does not currently have a world-ranking point), Lee was 11 under through 12 holes and sitting atop a leaderboard that included world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
But he proceeded to go bogey-bogey-double, and when play was suspended for inclement weather with the final two groups, including Lee's, on the last hole, Lee found himself 6 under and a whopping eight shots back of leader Chesson Hadley. (TV cameras had also shown Lee taking a questionable drop on the back nine, but Tour officials reviewed the tape and determined there to be no wrongdoing.)
While Lee's leading moment was short-lived, it was notable in that Lee's journey to what was shaping up to be a potential watershed victory has been anything but a fasttrack.
Lee picked up the game at age 2, pouring through Golf Digest magazines as a grade-schooler and teeing it up with his dad, Spencer, on the coldest of winter days in Cincinnati, where Lee grew up. Warm weather and the academic reputation of Claremont McKenna College, one of the seven small schools that make up the 8,500-student Claremont family, drew Lee to California for college.
Competing for D-III triumvirate Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, where Spencer played soccer, Lee won an individual national championship and was awarded the Jack Nicklaus Award as a sophomore in 2010. Earlier that spring, Lee’s stellar play caught the eye of Cal-Berkeley head coach Steve Desimone, who offered Lee a scholarship to transfer and play D-I golf for the Bears. Lee accepted but later that summer decided to stay and finish his economics degree in Claremont. A year later, he nearly won another national title, finishing runner-up.
Lee turned pro in 2012 but struggled to find his footing. After a couple of years of making just one cut in five tries on the Korn Ferry Tour, Lee headed over to Europe, where he played the Challenge Tour in 2014. In 18 starts, he barely cracked the top 100 on the tour’s money list and returned to the U.S. that fall. It was then that he experienced a minor breakthrough, earning his Korn Ferry Tour card via Q-School, though his stay was short; Lee made just five cuts in 2015 and lost his status after just one season.
Lee's best start in that lone KFT campaign? T-30 in Chile. Ironically, that same week, Lee shot 63 and led by a shot after 18 holes.
Now married (in 2019 to wife, Christina) and a father, Lee has since played a few seasons on the Mackenzie Tour while also bouncing around qualifiers and on the mini-tours. The COVID-19 pandemic didn't help matters, limiting an already finite number of playing opportunities. He didn’t log a world-ranked start last year.
Yet, through Monday qualifiers, he’s now earned his way into three Tour events this year, making the cut all three times. According to Monday Q Info, Lee had to birdie his final hole to advance out of a pre-qualifier for the Farmers, which ended up being his Tour debut earlier this season.
Everyone knows what a victory Sunday would bring. But a top-10 finish is nice, too, as it would qualify Lee for the Travelers in two weeks.
“A lot's been going on in the world this past year, but for me the past couple years, few years, got married, had a kid, and things have changed a little bit,” Lee said Friday. “So, for the golf game, it seems to have changed for the better so far. Maybe I found a little something.”
And maybe he can find it once again before the weekend is over.