By Tony Maluso of the daily Citizen-Times in Dalton, GA
S.M. Lee (L) led Dalton State to a runner-up finish (DSC photo)
SILVIS, IL (May 18, 2018) - Tournament championships, conference player of the year awards, a national player of the year award, the list of accolades for Dalton State College sophomore golfer S.M. Lee scrolls quite long.
But there's still room for the newest, and perhaps the biggest honor: national champion.
Lee outclassed the entire field at this week's NAIA men's golf national championship at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill., shooting under 70 in all four rounds to finish at 12-under-par 272, eight shots clear of second place Jack Dyer of Keiser University.
"It's definitely special to have this one," said Lee, a business finance major from Buford. "It's been my goal since I came in fourth last year which was very disappointing. This is what I was aiming for, this was my top priority in college gold. This is a really special trophy that I will always cherish."
Dalton State coach Ben Rickett said the championship potential was always there with Lee. This week's title was the product of two years of personal growth and a laser-sharp focus on the course this week.
"You look at where he was two years ago, you always knew the skill level was there," Rickett said. "He's really matured. I'm proud of the way he grew up the last couple years. Also, his focus was superb from start to finish. There were a couple of times he potentially could've, and in the past maybe would've stumbled but he didn't do that at all. He birdied a few of the holes coming in. He said his goal was to shoot 2-under every day and he did that."
It was more than just a strong week for Lee, his performance was historic. No one in the 65-year history of the NAIA championships has posted a better score than Lee. His 272 matched the tournament's all-time scoring record set by another Roadrunner, Sean Elliott in 2015.
"It just tells people we're a great team, that Dalton State produces great players," Lee said of two Roadrunners holding the two best rounds in NAIA championship history. "We deserve to be ranked amongst the best. I'm so proud of the team, I can't to see what they can do in the future."
Lee was in a tie for sixth after Tuesday's opening round where he fired a 2-under 69, three shots out of first. He surged into the lead shooting a 68 on Wednesday and solidified his standing at the top of the leaderboard with 66 on Thursday, matching the lowest round of the week.
It wasn't just powerful drives or a hot putter that carried Lee to the title. Rather, it was an all-around strong game and the ability to prevent mistakes.
"He just did everything well," Rickett said. "A couple days he hit it better than others. (Thursday) he took advantage of some pretty straight-forward conditions, put up a great score. He got on a little bit of a role that day. All in all he didn't make many mistakes. Made a lot of birdies, not a lot of bogeys and when he did have a bogey, there was a good chance he followed it up with a birdie."
Lee led by five shots going into Friday and his frontrunner status was never seriously threatened. He was at even par after his first nine holes and added birdies on Nos. 14 and 15 to end the day with another 69.
"It didn't really matter to me," Lee said of playing with the lead, "all I wanted to do was beat my competitors that day, post good scores. I know I had a cushion of a five-shot lead which put me at ease a little bit, but I didn't want to win by just one or two shots."
Lee has a choice to make this summer about whether or not to return to Dalton State in the fall as a junior, or turn professional. After Friday's championship, Lee said he was unsure if he will be back, although he does plan on looking to play in professional events over the summer. Before the national championship win, Lee was No. 126 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking.
As a team, DSC finished as the tournament runner-up. The Roadrunners collectively shot even par on Friday and finished the tournament 4-over par, 13 shots behind national champion Oklahoma City University.
"From my standpoint, I couldn't be more proud of what this team accomplished," Rickett said. "(Thursday), the last couple holes really did hurt. I think there was about an eight-shot swing between us and Oklahoma City which gave them a little bit of a cushion. (Friday) we finished real strong. It was looking for a while we might be as low as fifth. The kids were resilient, everyone came through. From top to bottom it's been such a team effort to achieve what this group has the last two years, because this group has been together for the last two years."
Also for the Roadrunners on Friday, Ben Rebne shot a 70, Dalton Johnson shot a 72 and P.J. Shields posted a 73. For the tournament, Chase Cole was the second top Roadrunner tying for 33rd at 291. Rebne tied for 45th with a 293 while Johnson and Shields were both in a tie for 48th at 294.
The field consisted of 94 golfers.