Golf: Lee in high company after the lows

Tim Glover in Tobago meets a golfer shaking up his game and the tour
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The Independent Online
THE GOOD news for the rank and file on the European Tour is that Robert Lee has joined the players' committee. It is not, however, necessarily good news for the tour's hierarchy. "Technically," Lee said, "we are shareholders in a company, but our shares are worth nothing."

In an attempt to imbue a multi-million-pound business with the consultancy of a heavyweight, Lee, and others, put forward Ian MacLaurin as a non-executive board member. Lord MacLaurin, a former chairman of Tesco, now the first lord of English cricket and the man who helped Jimmy Patino secure the Ryder Cup for Valderrama, was keen to offer his services, free of charge. Ken Schofield, the executive director of the tour, rejected the move on the grounds that MacLaurin would have a "conflict of interest".

"We are so insular," Lee said, "we have missed a great opportunity." Considering that he has not exactly been cruising the mainstream, Lee - in the West Indies for the Golfplan International Pro-Am - may seem an odd choice as a committee man, but at least he has seen most aspects of life on tour.

His rise and fall has been dramatic even by the cruel standards of professional golf. It doesn't seem so long ago that Peter Alliss was citing Lee as one of the exciting talents to emerge as the Londoner set the pace with 68 in the first round of the Open at Royal St George's. It was 1985, the year that Lee, then 24, won the Cannes Open and the Brazilian Open. The same season he matched the world record of 27 strokes for nine holes en route to a 61 at the Monte Carlo Open.

Three years later, in the Open at Muirfield, Lee again exploded on to the scene although not in the manner endorsed by the Royal and Ancient. He and his running mate Mark Rowe enlivened a practice day by playing with paper bags over their heads while hitting golf balls that blew up on impact.

"We did it for a laugh," Lee recalls. The R & A did not see the funny side of it. "They wanted to know who was paying us to do it and in their best BBC World Service voice asked if we wanted to play in the Open Championship again. We replied 'Yes, please'."

At the time Lee had a reputation to live up to. In the tour guide he listed his interests in one word: discos. When he won in Cannes he said he had been in a night-club until 2am before the final round. When you're young, gifted and enjoy taking the mickey, the subsequent fall can be devastating. Lee began to miss more cuts than he made. "You lose confidence and you start going round in ever decreasing circles."

The penalty for dropping down the Order of Merit is loss of face, loss of tour card, loss of status. "Then it gets really tough," Lee said. As his sponsors deserted him, he was reduced to playing in regional pro-ams. "This is going to sound stupid," he said, "but I had to cancel the newspapers and read other people's. I missed some mortgage payments and owed pounds 10,000 on two credit cards." Suddenly, walking around with a paper bag over his head seemed like a good idea. As low as Lee got, two things happened to keep him on course.

He married Liz, who was working as a promotions girl for Bell's Whisky, and he listened to Eddie Birchenough, the professional at Royal Lytham. The former presented him with a baby daughter, Iona, and a new sense of responsibility; the latter tried to sort out his game. "Eddie gave me just a few swing thoughts to work on and I hope I have learnt a lesson. When in trouble don't press the panic button. Don't go searching for another fix. If you've had a modicum of success you always know deep down that there's no reason on God's earth why you can't do it again. They can't take it away from you."

Lee found a sponsor in Nissan (Ireland) and it enabled him to play on the Challenge Tour in 1996: income pounds 34,000, expenditure pounds 20,000, but he finished third in the money list, thereby regaining his card for the regular tour. "The painful fact was that I was on the Challenge Tour because I put myself there. There is no feedback from the crowd because there is no crowd, but you learn to win again and if you lose sight of winning you might as well stay at home."

Last season he finished 131st in the money list and had to return to the qualifying school, successfully regaining his card. Even so, he does not expect to get a tee time until the Moroccan Open in March. The tour opens in Thailand, Australia and South Africa with events co-sanctioned with other tours.

"We shouldn't have to share with others," Lee argues. "The European Tour should be big enough and strong enough to run tournaments for its own members. How can you go to Australia under the guise of the European Tour? You don't see the US Tour staging an event in which only half their members can get in. It wouldn't happen in a million years."

Lee, the son of an Irish watchmaker and an Italian mother, left Gunnersbury, a Catholic school, with 10 O-levels and studied horology for a year. The rest of the time he has spent playing golf. Every time he stands over a putt he is reminded of his daughter. He has a putter called a Sedona and with a little white paint has changed the name to Iona.

"Every year it's a rat race," he said. "But the road back is twice as hard." This time Lee is travelling light. No credit cards. "I cut them up as soon as I had some money."