Richard Lee shines at NZ Open in Arrowtown
Richard Lee could be the New Zealand Open's diamond in the rough.
A year of babysitting his daughter and contemplating a future of teaching golf didn't have the 40-year-old Aucklander featuring in many people's calculations for the New Zealand Open.
And now he's the leader, tied with fast-finishing Australian Adam Blyth at nine-under par after the second round.
On a largely dull, bitterly cold day that featured snow on the surrounding hills near Arrowtown, Lee and Blyth sparkled.
At The Hills, Lee went bogey-free, made five birdies and signed for a five-under 67. Blyth, playing Millbrook Resort, made nine birdies – including one on the 570m par-five 15th after hitting his second in the water, taking a penalty then holing out from 70m.
Lee set the early pace and after an drawn out break from the sport was a surprise co-leader.
The golf he did play in that time was "pretty average", he said.
With his wife travelling for work, Lee spent most of last year as a stay-at-home dad looking after the couple's 22-month-old daughter Sienna.
He also spent plenty of time contemplating his golfing future and a possible career in coaching. Lee took part in the PGA of New Zealand's bridging programme which allows playing professionals to train to be coaches.
He hadn't given up completely on a playing future, but wanted to keep his options open.
Lee then struck a brief patch of form and played in the Japan Golf Tour's final stage of qualifying, finishing 39th.
The top-30 received playing rights and Lee expects only a couple of starts. He's done very little since and has played poorly domestically, by his own high standards, and apart from a couple of starts in Japan, is the golfing equivalent of homeless.
"I don't know if a win here would be life-changing, but it would give me a few more places to play," he said.
He has unfinished business at the New Zealand Open, too.
At the last tournament, in Christchurch in 2012, Lee was second Kiwi home behind Mark Brown, but left shots on the golf course, recalling hitting a whopping 10-shots in Clearwater's lakes. "So I'd love to win the New Zealand Open. It would be the best thing."
In a cold afternoon round where players were hassled with two heavy downpours and bone-chilling wind, Blyth and his putter got hot.
The Queenslander had just 19 putts all day, holed out on 15, chipped in on his fifth and raced up the leaderboard.
"It was just one of those days you dream of," he said of his seven-under 65.
"My putting was just unbelievable."
Lee and Blyth share a two-shot buffer from Hamilton's Mathew Perry and Australian Dimitrios Papadatos who both signed for three-under 69s to be seven-under for the tournament.
Papadatos' countrymen, Matt Jager, and Bryden Macpherson are one further back at six-under while Kiwis Ryan Fox, Mark Brown and David Klein share seventh with overnight leader Terry Pilkadaris (73), at five-under and still within striking distance.
Notables to make the cut include Gareth Paddison (-3), David Smail (-1) and Peter O'Malley (even) while among those to miss the weekend action are Josh Geary (+2 after a 76 today) and Greg Turner (+4).
The cutline fluctuated between even-par and +1 and eventually settled at +1, meaning New Zealand No 1 Mike Hendry (73) just snucked into the weekend. The top 60 players and ties made the cut at +1 was good enough for a share of 59th. 71 players made the cut.
American professional Rocco Mediate, playing Hendry at The Hills yesterday, just needed to par the 18th to make the cut but he double-bogeyed the par-four and ended at three-over.
Leading amateur honours, and the Bledisloe Cup, were shared by Southland's Vaughan McCall and Canterbury's Jordan Bakermans at five-over. No amateur made the cut.
McCall had a shocking eight-over 80 yesterday to drop from three-under. He turned in 10-over 46 but salvaged four birdies to go with two further bogeys on his back nine.
And spare a thought for NZ amateur rep Kadin Neho. He finished the two rounds with a whopping 37-over par tally, 22 shots worse than second-to-last.
Neho had a 25-over 97 at The Hills with three triple bogeys, five double bogeys, seven bogeys, two pars and a lone birdie.
If Mathew Perry gets the speed of The Hills' greens right, he could putt his way to a shock New Zealand Open title.
It would be just reward for organisers who handed the 27-year-old from Hamilton one of three tournament invites after he wrote to them promoting his case.
Perry, a former New Zealand amateur champion, fired a three-under 69 at The Hills yesterday despite leaving a host of putts "right on line" but short.
He still putted well and deserved to be tied for third but it could have been better.
"They're just a bit sticky and a lot of guys have been leaving them short, but I was putting them dead online all day [yesterday and Thursday]."
He was confident he could right that over the weekend where he is one of a small number of Kiwis in with a chance of breaking New Zealand's 11-year drought at the tournament.
It helped being out early, he said, though he played The Hills' 18th as the southerly hit.
"It got pretty challenging out there so to be done and make a good par at the last was pleasing.
"The guys in the afternoon [had] it tough, but that's golf."
Perry said his course management was the key to his success, as was his buildup.
"I prepared well. I came here on Sunday and it had been a while since I played Millbrook so I took my time practising around there. And I've become accustomed to how [The Hills] plays so it was pleasing to do well here."
Perry has full membership on the PGA Tour of Australasia by finishing inside the top 40 in Australia's pro-am series, but no category meaning his starts are limited. A big finish this weekend could change all that.
Should he win in Arrowtown, he would receive a full exemption for the remainder of this year and the next two while a top-10 finish would leap him up the Order of Merit increasing his chances of earning a card for 2015.