A Model Of Consistency

April 13, 2009

BY JEREMY COTHRAN

SEATTLE -- At the collegiate level, the physical difference between elite golfers and the average player is fairly negligible. Most Division I players boast impressive power off the tee, accuracy with their irons and consistent putting skills.

What separates golfers like Washington's Richard Lee from their peers is instead mental makeup -- possessing the ability to instantly purge poor shots from memory and not letting the course intimidate them. In this regard, there might not be a tougher competitor in the Pac-10 Conference.

As part of a tandem with junior Nick Taylor, Lee gives the Huskies one of the better 1-2 duos in the country. Their stellar play is a big reason why Washington has reached a No. 8 ranking in the latest Golfweek poll. Lee's hallmark, though, has been a level of consistency that is trumpeted by his coaches and peers, evidenced by seven top-10 finishes this season out of nine tournaments. His stroke average of 72.12 leads the team as well. Lee is the type of player who could be having the worst round of his life, yet is mature enough to grind through holes and cobble together a respectable score. A lesser golfer might let a few bad shots snowball into an explosive round. Consistency is something in which Lee takes an immense amount of pride.

'Every day he is just so amazingly consistent,' Thurmond said. 'He knows he's going to work hard every day, golf is really important to him, he's going to do well in school. Most college kids have a difficult time managing expectations, and consequently, emotions on the golf course. With Richard, you can't rattle him. He's just got perspective.'

Lee felt it was about two or three years ago when he made a jump in that regard. He spent a lot of time on the course focusing on staying in the present, and not letting the actual outcome affect his game. Lee subscribes to the mantra that there are things you can't control on the golf course, such as a bad lie or an unlucky bounce, so it's not worth it to him to waste energy worrying about it.

'I have this saying, this one word that I keep to myself, which is `acceptance,'' Lee said. 'What that means to me is that wherever the ball ends up, or the shot that you hit, you just have to accept the outcome of it and turn that into an opportunity.'

Thurmond has asked Lee at several points this season to speak with his teammates, and impart some of his wisdom regarding mental conditioning. But it's easier said than done. Part of what makes Lee successful is an advanced level of maturity not seen with many college students. This comes from Lee's background, as the junior has lived in a foreign country during his teen years, is married and has experienced fatherhood much earlier than most. While most Washington students spend their free nights and weekends with friends socializing on campus or on University Avenue, Lee is home in Bellevue, where he lives in his own house with his wife and two-year-old daughter.

'My family keeps things in perspective for me,' Lee said. 'Golf, it's golf. But in a way, it's a game. It's what I love. But I have more important things in my life. When I have a frustrating week, I can look back and call my wife and talk to my daughter and it just makes my day. It's definitely not a normal college life.'

Those kind of values are why, as Thurmond put it, he never has to worry about Lee succumbing to the social pressures that can envelope even the most dedicated of students.

Perhaps it's because Lee ended up at Washington taking a far more circuitous than most students. When he was 16, he left Bellevue to move to the Philippines, where he lived on his own -- albeit with close supervision of a family friend, who is a professional golfer -- and did nothing but play golf. While Lee enjoyed the experience, he began to miss the day-to-day grind of school, and his friends. By the time his senior year rolled around at Newport High School, Lee was married. It wasn't too long before his daughter, Israella, was born.

Because of poor grades in high school, Lee couldn't qualify academically for UW. So he spent two years at Bellevue Community College, improving his GPA and continuing to work on his golf game. He showed continued success in top-level amateur tournaments as well. So when Lee was ready to transfer to Washington, Thurmond knew he had a special talent on his hands.

Best of all, Lee never considered playing at another school.

'I wasn't that worried about the adjustment because I've seen him play against (top competition) in the summer,' Thurmond said. 'I was more worried about the academic adjustment, and he's done very well. He made us think that he was a terrible student, and we were worried. But he did really well the first quarter. He brings the same maturity to his academics that he does his golf.'

For Lee, he explains this singular focus on golf not just as a means to a great season, but as a vehicle towards his post-college livelihood. Lee is focused on making the PGA Tour, and he believes his mental strength will be the difference if he has to endure the grueling test known as qualifying school, which is one of the more harrowing experiences in golf. In order to make the world's most prestigious tour, amateurs have to battle through six rounds with each other, and only a select few actually make it. Even though Lee has earned plenty of accolades with the Huskies, Thurmond still wants to see him improve in some areas. In particular, he wants Lee to open up and become a more aggressive player. Thurmond said Lee has the tendency to play conservatively on courses, which can be frustrating because he has the talent to shoot even lower scores.

But Thurmond believes that it will come, because Lee works intensely hard at his game.

'When people think of hard workers, they think first there and last to leave, and I think that's a little overrated,' Thurmond said. 'My hardest workers have never been like that. My hardest workers are the ones who are there every single day, who never drop off. They don't have days off. Richard is like that. He's getting better every single day.'

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