The European Challenge Tour prides itself on being the best production line for emerging golfing talent but it can also act as a stark reminder of how quickly fortunes can change in such a testing sport.
Craig Lee arrived in Nairobi for the season-opening Barclays Kenya Open scarred by his experiences towards the end of 2016. The Scot finished 112th in the Race to Dubai, just 1,500 points away from retaining his European Tour playing rights.
The near miss clearly still hurts and, at 39 years old, Lee has been questioning whether he has either the game or the motivation to commit himself to tackling the highly competitive Road to Oman in a bid to return to the European Tour.
“There were definitely mixed emotions ahead of this week,” he said. “My motivation was very, very low. There were only really two things that could come out of this week to keep me playing golf: one of them is obviously a very good week and the other one is finding something in my game that I’m willing to work at.
“I wouldn’t say it’s ‘make or break’ but this week is definitely going to be a big decider in what the future holds for the rest of the season.
“There was no pressure on me whatsoever, plus with it being so early in the season, it’s a long, long season and it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon. So no pressure at all, it’s just come out and try to survive and see what shape the game is in.”
Lee has successfully negotiated the Challenge Tour before, graduating in 2011 and spending the past five seasons on the European Tour.
An injury-affected 2016 is the main reason for his disappointment, though his late-season form was solid and suggested he still had a place at that level of the game.
However, with a young family growing up in his absence, and with the financial rewards on the Challenge Tour not matching those in the Race to Dubai, there are several factors that are making Lee think twice about whether he can commit to the full 2017 season or whether he might even call time on his professional career.
“I had a bit of bother at the beginning of last year and then I had wrist problems for maybe half or three-quarters of the season,” he said. “The last seven or eight tournaments I played really nicely, which was probably more frustrating because I played some really good golf, and to miss out by one was tough.
“If you start off the season well and then finish poorly you can think ‘I don’t really deserve it’, but when things don’t go your way and you muscle through them and come out the other side playing some really good golf and then you don’t get through, it’s a real kick in the ankles.
“It shows that it may be worth persevering with the game, but there’s a lot of factors involved – financially it’s a little bit tighter than I would like it to be, and being out here and spending a fair amount to follow the tour when I’m not really interested or motivated feels a bit selfish.
“Once I find that belief and get that sorted I think I’d be prepared to do that, to fork out the money and try to get back playing good golf.
“But there are loads of things in the back of your mind that decide it. I’ve got a young daughter back home and I’m missing her growing up, every time I go back she’s doing something different, saying something different, so that’s another pull.
“As much as I’ve dedicated my whole life up until now to the job, there’s a point in time where you’ve got to say ‘I can’t be selfish any more’ so there’s loads of different things that will play on my mind.”
Encouragingly for both him and his supporters, and with no expectations on his shoulders, Lee started well at Muthaiga Golf Club, carding an opening 67 to sit three shots off the first round lead.
“I played some really good stuff today and I quite enjoyed it,” he said. “I had butterflies on the first tee which was quite nice to have, but funnily enough it doesn’t feel like I’ve had six months off, it feels like I’m straight back into it again, and that can only be a good thing.“I wasn’t expecting anything, I’ve had a lot of time off, so it’s been hard to get back into it and I didn’t know what game was going to come with me this trip, so I’m delighted to see it’s a pretty good one.”