CJ Lee did not choke. In fact, he held up his end — and then some.
Lee went far beyond what was expected of him as the No. 5 player for BYU as the Cougar golf team crashed in the final round of the NCAA Regional at Stanford on Wednesday.
BYU entered the third and final round at the regional tied for fifth place. If the Cougars could hold up that placement, they’d advance to the NCAA golf championships. Instead, the top four players began the day with six bogeys, a double bogey and even one triple bogey and finished eighth to end its season.
The team dropped in the tournament standings like a brick in water. Nobody made a birdie until Peter Kuest on No. 7.
Lee didn’t exactly burn things up, shooting a 75. But unlike other stars on the WCC championship team, he avoided the big miss, the big number. He finished as BYU’s overall top performer in his first NCAA regional.
As a No. 5 player on a golf team, you are a lot of things. You are lucky to make the travel team. You are rewarded for working your tail off to get that status. You are likely a determined, motivated guy who may not have the reputation of the rest of the guys, but you’ve scratched and clawed your way onto the plane.
Lee, a Timpview High graduate who experienced state championships, is just that kind of guy. And his effort in BYU’s West Coast Conference championship and appearance in the NCAA Regional at Stanford this week underline the importance of never giving up.
I see Lee, who was born in South Korea, as one of those inspirational stories that come along all the time in competition.
He isn’t the long hitter that teammates Patrick Fishburn and Kuest are. He isn’t the defending Utah Amateur champion that Fishburn is. He wasn’t a highly touted recruit, as Kuest and freshman Rhett Rasmussen from Corner Canyon were, coming out of high school.
But he had clubs and a game. And he made the most of it as his junior year came to a close.
Even as BYU’s team wilted in the final round of the regional, Lee rose up and put on the team’s best overall performance from his perch as the caboose player. It was a trend he showed midway through the WCC championship at Riverside.
“I can’t say enough about how hard CJ has worked to get to where he is,” said BYU coach Bruce Brockbank after the WCC. “For him to come out and shoot a 4-under 68 in the final round, to not make even one bogey on this course on the final day is a great accomplishment.”
At Stanford, Lee went in believing that if everyone on BYU’s team played to his potential — including himself as the No. 5 player — that they were capable of beating Stanford on its home course.
Lee began the Regional on Monday by shooting a 3-under-par 67. He made an eagle on the Par-4 No. 9th to tie Fishburn for third place in the individual standings after the first round.
In the second round, he fired a 1-over-par 71 after going 2-over on the front. He made a birdie on No. 15 and then hit a 3-wood 265 yards into the hole for a double eagle on the par-5 16th. He entered the final round tied for ninth place.
In Wednesday’s final round, the only Cougar to post a better final round was Rasmussen, with a 1-over-par 71. Lee finished with a 5-over 75 but when all the strokes were counted for the three-day 54-hole regional, it was Lee who had weaved his way around the course with the fewest strokes, a 3-over-par effort.
Lee, BYU’s last positioned guy, finished higher than the Cougars’ No. 1 Fishburn (6-over-par 216), No. 2 Rasmussen (9-over-par 219), the No. 3 man Kuest (4-over 214) and No. 4 Spencer Dunaway (5-over 215).
In golf, there are no medals for finishing an NCAA tournament tied for 23rd in a field of 75 players on a team that slipped from fifth to eighth in the course of 18 holes.
But if you are the one guy scratching, the guy fighting to find a spot, a player trying to prove you belong and show you can compete and challenge; if you are that guy who had three other teammates earn medalist honors in tournaments this year yet you topped them all when given the chance then, Mr. Lee, this was your week.
And the least likely leading man deserves to take a bow as the curtains close on BYU’s 2017 season.