Lee makes history by earning PGA TOUR card
September 01, 2015
By Laury Livsey, PGATOUR.COM
- September 01, 2015
- Lucas Lee finished in the top 25 of the Web.com Tour money list and earned a PGA TOUR card. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
To get to the PGA TOUR, in the winter of 2014, Lucas Lee decided he needed to go as far away as possible from where he wanted to be.
Between 2009 -- the year after his UCLA team won the NCAA Championship -- and 2013, Lee was a regular on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada. And he’d had plenty of success. Despite not winning on that circuit, he had five runner-up finishes, losing to future PGA TOUR star Graham DeLaet in 2009 at The Players Cup. Lee could have easily returned to Canada in 2014.
“I’d been playing PGA TOUR Canada and some mini-tours for five or six years. To be honest, after my third year, I started thinking, When am I going to get out of there?” Lee said. “Once you play too many years on the mini-tours, I think you can get stuck there. You might feel like you’re settled. You say you want to get out of there, but it’s almost comfortable to be there. I think you can get lost on the mini-tours because you know the courses, you know what they feel like and maybe you don’t push yourself as hard as you should.
“Canada,” Lee continued, “had felt like a home Tour because I had already played there five years. I wanted something different, something that might motivate me to work harder to get something different out of the year. I worried about just going through the motions.”
The change of scenery Lee had in mind was a new PGA TOUR-sponsored circuit in China, the Ping An Bank China Tour – PGA TOUR China Series. Its first season was set for 2014, and by virtue of his Order of Merit finish in Canada, he was fully exempt in China.
“I knew if I had a decent year in China, I could have some access to the Web.com Tour, even if it was just through the final stage (of the Qualifying Tournament),” Lee noted. “Everything was already in place for me to go to Asia. And I don’t mind the language barrier. I don’t mind the food. For me, it was an easy fit.”
So after playing in the 2014 Web.com Tour’s Brasil Champions, where he finished 21st, Lee, a native of Brazil of South Korean descent who attended college in Los Angeles—are you keeping all this straight?—was on his way to China, where he immediately made his presence known.
Lee was tied for second through 36 holes of PGA TOUR China’s inaugural event, the Mission Hills Haikou Open, and he eventually tied for 20th. In his next start, in Guangzhou, at the Buick Open, he was fourth after shooting a 5-under 67 on the final day.
Although he never won in China, he added five more top-10s, including three third-place finishes—at the Earls Beijing Open, the Nine Dragons Open and the Tour Championship presented by CTS Tycoon. He ended eighth on the Order of Merit, just missing getting one of the cards issued to the top-five Order of Merit finishers.
“Lucas was a very good player last year in China,” said Hao Tong Li, the 2014 PGA TOUR China Series Player of the Year. “In every tournament I played, I knew he was a player I had to worry about, someone who was very good and could win.”
Lee finished the season eighth on China’s Order of Merit, and that earned him a spot in final stage of the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament, giving him conditional status on the 2015 Web.com Tour.
“I was desperately trying to make it to the final stage because I had never made it to that stage of Q School. Getting out of Canada and China and the mini-tours was my push,” he said.
But as a conditionally exempt player, Lee’s Web.com Tour playing opportunities seemed remote, even after receiving a sponsor’s exemption into the Brasil Champions. He hoped to parlay that playing opportunity into a high finish, but after a promising, 5-under start, he was 5-over for his final 36 holes on his way to a tie for 69th.
“I didn’t think I was going to get into any tournaments the rest of the year,” Lee reasoned after his poor weekend in Sao Paulo. And it didn’t look promising at the BMW Charity Pro-Am in May. At the beginning of the week, he was the eighth alternate. However an inordinate number of players withdrew from the South Carolina event, allowing Lee to become the last player into the field. He took full advantage of his good fortune, shooting rounds of 70-65-66-70 to tie for 16th, automatically earning a spot in the next field—The Rex Hospital Open in Raleigh, N.C. He didn’t play poorly there, but his 2-under 140 after 36 holes was not enough to get him to the weekend. Yet Lee still was in the field for the next week’s Greater Dallas Open, and that’s where the plotline of Lee’s season took a dramatic twist. He shot four sub-70 rounds at The Lakes at Castle Hills in Lewisville, good enough for a tie for second with Greg Yates, two shots behind winner Tyler Aldridge.
“I was definitely relieved,” Lee said of that career-best performance, “because I knew I was going to be close to keeping my card.”
A week later, at the Rust-Oleum Championship in Ohio, another final-round 65 to go with a third-round 63 at Lakewood Country Club in West Lake, left him a shot behind winner Shane Bertsch. Two tournaments. Two second-place checks. Total take: $108,800.
Suddenly, the guy who was just looking for tournaments to play earlier in the year was now thinking about the PGA TOUR as he sat firmly in 16th place on the money list, with the top-25 money-winners at the end of August earning their 2015-16 PGA TOUR playing privileges.
Between his runner-up performance in Ohio and the News Sentinel Open in Knoxville, Tenn., a total of eight starts to conclude his season, Lee fluctuated between No. 16 and No. 23 on the earnings’ chart. Entering the Regular Season-ending WinCo Foods Portland Open, he was 22nd and in solid position to earn his card.
So what did Lee do? “I went out and shot a 77 on the first day in Portland. Not good,” he said. Lee eventually missed the cut at Pumpkin Ridge, making for some sweaty palms over the weekend.
“There were several guys who could have passed me (on the money list), and I knew it would be close if I would get my card,” Lee said. “I kept checking PGATOUR.COM and the live scoring. I was figuring out all the different scenarios trying to figure who could pass me. That sort of thing.”
By the tournament’s conclusion in Portland, Lee was 23rd, with Harold Varner III locking up the final card. Those who could have moved up and pushed out Lee didn’t.
“I wasn’t surprised at all at how well Lucas played on the Web.com Tour this year,” added Li, who finished 49th on the money list and is still seeking his PGA TOUR card. “He’s very solid.”
At the card ceremony, where he earned the distinction of becoming the first Ping An Bank China Tour – PGA TOUR China Series’ player to earn his PGA TOUR card, Lee posed for photos with South Korean friends Si Woo Kim, Michael Kim, Sung Kang and D.H. Lee, who also finished top 25 and picked up their TOUR cards.
Lee is taking a week off, and then he’ll play in the four Web.com Tour Finals’ events, where he hopes to play well to improve his status going into the 2015-16 PGA TOUR season. Following a trip to South Korea for a tournament, he’ll return to the States and prepare for the PGA TOUR season.
“You have to be ready to go. Nobody is going to care that I’m a rookie. Gladly, I know a few guys on TOUR, growing up with them. So that will be a nice transition,” Lee explained. “But at the end of the day, I have to be ready to play. I’ve played in world-class tournaments before, and I’ve been a part of world-class fields. I’m just not used to doing it every week. Yet I think I’ll be fine once I get there.”
Plus, he knows the getting-there part may very well have been the most difficult part of his journey.