Tain Lee: 8 Feet From a Tour Card
Tain Lee has come closer to his dream that he ever imagined
You would think a PGA Tour pre-qualifying event is probably the last place someone could say they changed their career. Tain Lee might disagree. Just two weeks ago, he was in the second-to-last group on Saturday at the Palmetto Championship at Congaree in South Carolina. That day he birdied four of the first five holes and held the lead for over an hour in just his third-ever PGA Tour event, nine years into his pro career. The fairways were lined with fans and he was a focus of the CBS telecast. But none of that happens without Tain making a clutch up-and-down on the 18th hole of a pre-qualifier to make it to the actual qualifier way back in January.
Let me explain.
There are not many places more miserable in the pro golf world than a pre-qualifier. A pre-qualifier is played on the Wednesday or Thursday before the Monday qualifier and is played to control the size of the field on Monday. The number of players who get through the pre-qualifier is based on how many players are signed up for the Monday qualifier. There is a $200 entry fee to play a mediocre-to-poor course. The best-case scenario is you get through and you’re rewarded with more expenses: an additional $250 entry fee plus a hotel for four more days to play against a hundred or so more players for four spots in the Monday qualifier.
I asked Tain if he ever thought about quitting. “Many times,” he told me with a laugh.
Lee has a wife, Christina, a 15-month-old boy named Tobi, and another baby due in October. A career that costs you money year after year with a family isn’t sustainable. He says that without the support of his wife, parents, and sister he would have stopped a long time ago. During COVID, he took real estate classes, traded some stocks, and made plans to find his next career. But he thought to himself, “One more year,” and in January 2021, he signed up for the Farmers Insurance Open pre-qualifier. As pre-qualifiers go, the Farmers is among the hardest to get through, and this year was no different. More than 400 players fought it out across six sites for only 25 spots to get into the actual Monday qualifier.
Tain played his pre-qualifier on the Eisenhower course at Industry Hills Golf Club just outside Los Angeles. Only three spots were available for the ninety players trying to make it. Lee thought it would take something like 69 to get through.
The “Ike,” as locals call the Eisenhower course, is no pushover. When Lee reached the tee on his final hole–a monster par-5 that plays over 600 yards–he needed a birdie to get to that magic number. A good drive and a three-wood left him a difficult pitch from 60 yards. If he could get up-and- down, he had a good chance to get through. Make a par and very likely he would head home. After a good pitch shot, he had an 8-footer for birdie that would secure his spot in the Monday qualifier. The putt was downhill and breaking a little to his right. The perfectly struck putt went in, dead center.
It’s easy to look back on the importance of that putt now, but at that moment there was not much excitement. It was great to get through, but Lee still faced a daunting Monday-qualifier field filled with multiple PGA Tour winners. He had basically qualified to qualify. Lots of golf left, as they say.
Monday, January 25, at Bear Creek Golf Club in Murrieta, Calif., was a miserable day. It was 50 degrees and it hailed (yes, hailed) for parts of the day. If it hails at a PGA Tour event, play is immediately halted. But at a Monday qualifier, play does not stop, and you are going to need to sweep the hail off the greens if you want to make putts. As for scoring, it’s rare that a Monday qualifier doesn’t require a 66 or better to get in, regardless of the weather.
Despite carding a double-bogey in his round, Lee made six birdies, and his 69 was good enough to tie for the best score of the day. Nine years after turning professional, Tain Lee was going to tee it up in his first PGA Tour event.
Making a PGA Tour Start
The rewards for making a cut for a player with zero status are huge. The first one is obviously money. Last place at a PGA Tour event pays better than winning almost all mini-tour events. Second, it allows players to skip pre-qualifiers for the rest of the season. With the Farmers being played in January, a made cut meant Lee would be able to skip pre-qualifiers for almost an entire calendar year.
Lee opened the Farmers at the more difficult South course at Torrey Pines and shot 71, the seventh-best score of the day on that course. He stood 65th on the leaderboard, but he was in a great position as he headed to the easier North course the next day.
But as it goes in a player’s first Tour start, there were some struggles. He had some sloppy bogeys mixed with some timely birdies; he came to the last with some room to spare. A bogey would get him through to the weekend. He hit a so-so approach on the 486-yard par 4, which left him 60 feet for birdie. Three putts from there and he was playing the weekend. He left the first one 15 feet short. “No problem,” he thought, “at worst two-putt from here.” He then hammered that putt six feet by. He looked at his dad, Spencer, following in the crowd, and mouthed the words, “Are you kidding me?” With his hands shaking, he nervously lined up the putt and stroked it home. A deep breath and a shoulder shrug followed. He had officially made the cut in a PGA Tour event.
Although he didn’t play very well, Lee would have an exciting weekend. He played with Gary Woodland on Sunday–“the biggest name I’ve ever played with by far”–and he made a funny (now it’s funny at least) mistake. They had played lift, clean and place the first three days, and after driving it in the 11th fairway on Sunday, Lee picked up the ball to clean it. There was one problem: they weren’t playing lift, clean and place on Sunday. That resulted in a penalty, but he still managed to shoot 74-75 on the weekend, finished T69, and collected a much-needed $15,375.
His finish led to changing his schedule almost completely. With the ability to skip pre-qualifiers, he planned to play Monday qualifiers for a large part of the remaining season.
There were some near misses, but then came the Valero Texas Open Monday qualifier at the end of March. With a two-eagle 66 at the Monday qualifier again, he tied for medalist and earned a spot in the Valero Texas Open. And just like at the Farmers, he made the cut on the number and played decently on the weekend. He finished T59 and earned another $16,940.
Like so many journeymen, Lee’s seen many parts of the world chasing his dream. And he’s had to prove to himself that he belonged at each level. Given how he was playing, his belief that he belonged on the PGA Tour was growing.
Fast forward a couple of months to early June, another Monday, another 66, and a spot in the Palmetto Championship. It was another opportunity to make a cut, earn some money, and gain experience.
Lee opened with a 67 and was T7, but hardly anyone noticed. Not many people thought he would remain there, so the round wasn’t talked about much (besides this one Twitter account that focuses on Monday qualifiers).
Each week, there is a ranking order for tee times. For those who don’t know, the best players get the best times and Monday qualifiers get the worst. On Friday, Lee had the second-to-last tee time of the day at 2:16. By the time he finished his round, most of the fans had left the course for the day, and TV coverage was finished. His second-round 68 left him alone in third place behind Dustin Johnson and Tour winner Chesson Hadley. Though the coverage ended, people were taking notice.
“The walk to the first tee, there were cameras everywhere and fans lined everywhere,” Lee said, as he headed to the first tee on Saturday paired with Harris English. “It was crazy. I was so nervous.”
Most players in their third ever tour event, on TV for the first time, and chasing down the world’s best player, would have crumbled under pressure. Instead, on the first hole, he hit a wedge to six feet and made birdie; on the second hole, a wedge to 12 feet and another birdie; on the fourth hole, yet another wedge, and yet another birdie. Finally, on the 158-yard par-three fifth hole, he hit an 8-iron to 33 feet and drained that bomb to bring him to four-under through five holes. Tain Lee was leading a PGA Tour event on the weekend.
Lee says the whole experience was surreal. The crowd started to pull for the underdog and started yelling things like, “We believe in you, Tain!” and “Tain Train!” A Twitter account named @TainMotherF****n’ Lee was started and gained followers at a rapid rate. It was truly a fairy tale.
Unfortunately, a five-hole stretch on the back nine played in five over resulted in an even-par round, and he was now seven back of leader Chesson Hadley at the end of the third round.
He was, however, still in tied for sixth, and with a top-10 he would earn a spot in the Travelers field in two weeks. There was plenty to play for. A pairing with Tyrell Hatton (“He was really nice, but man, he’s always mad”) was another great experience.
At Congaree, as at all PGA Tour stops, you need to make birdies to keep up, and Lee made too many pars on Sunday. On the 16th , a poor chip led to a 16-footer for par, which he missed, resulting in a bogey that would prove to be very costly. Another 71 left him at -7 for the week. Harris English, whom Lee played with in the third round, finished bogey-double bogey to fall out of the top 10. Had Lee made the 16-footer on 16, he would have finished T10 and earned a spot in the Travelers.
Despite missing the Travelers, there were so many positives from the week, first and foremost being a check for $125,925, by far the biggest check of his career. That got him that much closer to earning a spot in the Korn Ferry Finals.
To earn a spot in the Korn Ferry Finals, non-members of the Tour need to earn the same number of FedEx Cup points as the player finishing 200th. There is a lot of math calculated weekly about what that number will be. This is for sure: Tain Lee is close, but he’s coming up short and needs to get another start before the season heads to the FedEx Cup playoffs. (so if any tournament directors are listening…)
The Back Story
Lee, who grew up in a small northern suburb of Cincinnati, had a decent junior career, but appendicitis derailed any real chance at playing a Division 1 college. He instead chose Division 3 Claremont McKenna, a private liberal arts school in California, known for its academics. D3 golf is a far cry from the D1 programs, with training facilities, strength coaches, practice facilities, and chartered flights. Claremont didn’t have a practice facility and the players had to pay for their own range balls. After an impressive start to his collegiate career, he had some conversations with some bigger schools, including Cal-Berkeley, but ultimately decided to stay at Claremont and concentrate on academics. Lee would go on to win a lot at Claremont, a total of 14 times, including a D3 national championship his sophomore year.
After graduation in 2012, he remained an amateur for the summer. “I have no idea why,” he says. “It wasn’t like I was going to make the Walker Cup team; I really just had no idea about pro golf.”
He would eventually turn pro, but to say his expectations were low would be an understatement, “Zero out of 10.” Soon after turning pro, he headed to his first Monday qualifier, and despite almost no expectations, he got through. He missed the cut that week but headed to the next Monday qualifier with a little more confidence. And he got through again. Getting through two Mondays in a row at any time is a great accomplishment; getting through two in a row just weeks after turning pro is astonishing.
He opened with a 68 that week and was even on the leaderboard. A 74 on the second day resulted in his first-ever cut made, and after a 73-74 on the weekend, he earned his first pro check of $2,160. Two successful Monday qualifiers in a row just weeks after turning pro would seem to point to a quick journey to the PGA Tour. Unfortunately, it wasn’t going to be that easy for Tain.
Like many others, Lee would take multiple trips to Q-school. He played the Challenge Tour in 2014, he also made three of three cuts on the European Tour that year and was a member of the Korn Ferry Tour in 2015. But injuries and too many missed cuts resulted in losing his cards on both of those tours. He has played multiple seasons on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada, where still has status, which is why he is eligible for Forme Tour events. The word journeyman gets thrown around often in golf (Paul Azinger called three-time Tour winner Russell Henley one during the U.S. Open broadcast), but Lee fits the moniker.
And now that journey and one great week at Congaree have brought him the chance to get into the Korn Ferry Finals. It all started with a great up-and-down from 60 yards at a pre-qualifier.