When Tain Lee was a child, his father made a habit of bringing him places. That included the golf course, because just about the time Tain was born, his dad was developing a case of the greensa new pastime that would have a lasting impact on his little protege.
"I took my first swing at the age of 2, and the rest is history," Lee says.
That includes some pretty amazing recent history. Just last month the rising CMC junior won the individual title at the NCAA Division III Men's Golf Championships in Hershey, Penn., with a seven-under par total of 280. It's the first individual golf title won in CMS history and at the conclusion of the tournament, Lee was presented with the Arnold Palmer Award and named Ping Division III First Team All-American for the second straight year (more).
"My mom would argue that I was born to be a golfer," Lee says. "She said she had gone into a golf store twice when she was pregnant with me and both times I wouldn't stop kicking. My parents also say we had Golf Digest magazines in the house and when I was a couple of years old I would just stare at the pictures in them."
His roots at Claremont McKenna are as deep as his roots in golf. Lee's father, Spencer Lee, is a 1978 CMC graduate and also played soccer here, while Lee's sister Hana just graduated from neighboring Scripps College last year. "I saw CMC as a place where I would be able to get a great education and play golf at a high level of competition," he says.
In January, however, those roots were given a serious twitch when Lee accepted a scholarship offer to play golf for the University of California, Berkeley, beginning this fall.
"I left CMC in May, saying goodbye to my coach, teammates, professors, and peers," Lee says. "I thought that with the way things were going, I wanted to play golf at the Division I level. I was in contact with a few schools, but thought Cal was the one place where I could play golf at the Division I level while still being able to focus on my education. However, just this past week I began to think differently."
Lee, an economics major, says that after speaking with advisors, he learned that pursuing his major at Berkeley while also competing on the golf course would be problematic.
"Basically, I found out that as a golfer at Cal, especially as a transfer, being an econ major wasn't a feasible option and certainly was not encouraged," he says. "So I took a step back and looked at the big picture again. I really didn't have much of a reason to leave CMC. I think some people might think I'm crazy for turning down such an opportunity at Cal, but CMC is the place I want to be, so I will be a returning student there this fall."
Lee, who practices for four to six hours a day during the summers at the Marbella Country Club golf course (in his hometown of San Juan Capistrano), says good hand-eye coordination is essential to being an exceptional golfer.
"You wouldn't think it would be tough to hit a ball that isn't even moving, but there's something about it that just isn't easy," he says. "And in order to compete at a higher level, it doesn't hurt to have mental toughness, patience, and the ability to focus for a long time. Playing golf competitively can be mentally draining because of the precision required."
Two pros Lee likes to watch (and learn from) are Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. "There's always something to learn while watching the best in the world," he says. "I also enjoy watching the younger guys from my generation."
Lee says he isn't sure anything would beat playing golf for a living. "And I say that with the full understanding of how tough it is to become a professional golfer," he adds, noting that, at the end of the day, his dream is to turn pro.
And what exactly stokes that desire? For Lee, it may just come down to certain transcendent moments on the golf coursemoments like his birdie putt on the second-to-the-last hole at the NCAA National Championship this year.
"I was leading by two shots at the time, and had about a 30-foot birdie putt on the par 3 with a good deal of people watching behind the green," Lee remembers. "Nothing is a done deal in golf with a two-shot lead, and I figured widening my lead wouldn't hurt.
"After I made the putt I looked over at (CMS Men's Golf) Coach Bim Jollymour, and I think it was then that he started breathing again. I'm not sure he had any peace of mind on that final day coming down the stretch."