Sneak Peek: This article will appear in the May 20 issue of Global Golf Post.
On May 2, Philip Lee of Knoxville, Tenn., overcame a four-shot deficit in the final round and captured the Carlton Woods Invitational, his first big win on the national mid-amateur stage.
But he has overcome so much more.
Golf is an adjunct to Lee’s life, a footnote to a story of redemption and renewal.
Lee, 33, posted a stellar 5-under-par 67 in the final round at the Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas, to clinch the title. Playing in the penultimate group, Lee eagled the eighth hole, and after making birdies on 13 and 14, he had a hunch he was in the hunt, despite not looking at scoreboards. Relying on his iron play, which is the strength of his game, he hit the ball to the fat parts of the greens for the rest of the round, making pars all the way in to beat defending champion Joe Deraney by one shot. Deraney eagled the final hole to narrow the margin. But this one was Lee’s all the way.
Lee’s golf story is not unique. As an 11-year-old, he was introduced to the game by his uncle, Bill, in Conyers, Ga. He got the bug and put in the time, becoming a talented junior golfer in the Knoxville area. He was also a rebellious kid, which is also not unusual, but that aspect of his character was something that perhaps wasn’t given enough attention because of his talent and dedication to golf.
Like a lot of gifted juniors, Lee thought the pro game was in his future. He dreamt of playing at his hometown school, the University of Tennessee, and then joining the PGA Tour. But Tennessee did not recruit him. Instead, he wound up at Division II Tusculum University near Greenville, Tenn.
Before he set foot on campus, after a bad round of golf in a local tournament in July 2004, he joined a fellow competitor and got high for the first time. That proved to be a turning point. At 19, the formerly straight-laced kid began a seven-year journey through hell, otherwise known as drug addiction.
Finally, in February 2011, his parents, John and Phyllis, made the toughest call parents can ever make. They stepped away. No more enabling; no more late-night phone calls. That was bottom.
Alcohol and opioids became the loves of his life. “I had the gene,” he told me recently. He left school and his golf scholarship and waited tables in various restaurants to make money to support his habit.
He sought treatment once, but it didn’t take. He wasn’t ready. Bottom was down there somewhere. He just hadn’t reached it yet.
He dabbled with professional golf on the mini-tour circuit, never making much money. Lee eventually walked away from the game altogether in 2010.
Finally, in February 2011, his parents, John and Phyllis, made the toughest call parents can ever make. They stepped away. No more enabling; no more late-night phone calls.
That was bottom.
Lee moved from Knoxville to Nashville. He had to get well. After 30 days in rehabilitation, he moved into a halfway house for eight months, remaining in Nashville to avoid the temptations that awaited back home.
Lee began playing golf again in 2012 when a friend from rehabilitation invited him out for a round. He regained his amateur status in 2013, the same year he met Kylene Pulley at an outing at the Golf Club of Tennessee where she was an assistant professional. She was running a beat-the-pro contest on the 10th tee. Months later, he would propose to her on that same tee, and they were married in 2015. She helped get him a job through some members at the club. He now works for a credit-card processing company. He is doing well, one day at a time. The Lees are members at the golf club where they got engaged.
Now more than eight years sober, Lee has played in six USGA championships; his best outing came at the 2015 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship at the Johns Island Club in Vero Beach, Fla. In the round of 16 he ran into Sammy Schmitz, the eventual champion, losing, 4 and 3, after Schmitz won five consecutive holes on the inward nine.
Lee also has become a force in amateur golf in Tennessee. He won the state mid-amateur championship in 2013 and 2016, and he was low amateur in the 2017 Tennessee State Open.
Unlike many, Lee got a second chance. He pays that forward by serving as an Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor for others, defined as “an alcoholic who has made some progress in the recovery program and shares that experience on a continuous, individual basis with another alcoholic who is attempting to attain or maintain sobriety.”
He checks in regularly with those he sponsors and attends meetings himself several times a week, even when playing in golf tournaments away from home.
Lee has a tattoo on his left arm. It’s a Bible verse, Philippians 4:13, applied after he had been sober for a year: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
Lee is open about his life and experiences. He wants his story told. He said, “If it can help one person, then that’s awesome.”
Philip Lee’s victory at Carlton Woods was a milestone in his golf journey. But it pales against his eight-plus years of winning in what will be a lifelong battle against addiction.
He will continue to live in the game and out of it, setting an example, one stroke at a time and one day at a time.
Philip Lee, who won the Carlton Woods Invitational last week, is a sponsor and participant in Alcoholics Anonymous. Photo: Chris Keane, Copyright USGA
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