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Lee's a shuttler-turned-footballer who became adept at golf

Now 61, the lean six-footer is mean on the fairways like so many leading sportsmen
Jul 1, 2019 5:50 AM

What does former Singapore football goalkeeper David Lee have in common with tennis’ Ivan Lendl, athletics’ Carl Lewis, basketball’s Michael Jordan and cricket’s Kapil Dev?

It’s a four-letter word: GOLF.
And their handicaps: SINGLE.

For all five sportsmen, the transition from their No. 1 passion (better still, their careers) to the gentleman’s game of the fairways and greens came naturally — and quickly — after their retirements.

This truism was rubbed home to me by Lee, a national goalkeeper from 1979 to 1997, during our interview at the Singapore Cricket Club recently — where he was interrupted by greetings from people who recognised him as the imposing figure who stood between the goalposts for a record 106 times for the country.

For Lee, 61, indulging in golf came as an after-thought, encouraged by then-national football team manager Patrick Ang sometime in 1998 when he was nudging 40 years old.

In his youth, Lee dabbled in sports such as badminton, football, volleyball and hockey in order of preference.

Natural talent drew him to badminton, speed pulled him towards football as a right winger, imposing height (already a six-footer then) tossed him towards volleyball and deft stickwork occasionally consigned him to the hockey pitches.

Assimilate all that and what you get is a true-blue born sportsman, who took to golf like duck to water and became a single-handicapper within seven years of learning the game.

As a footballer, Lee has had several highs, from donning the No. 1 jersey in the Malaysia Cup triumphs of 1980 and 1994, to being liaison officer for the legendary England goalkeeper Gordon Banks during a visit to Singapore. He was hounded by thousands of fans during the Malaysia Cup heyday from the late Seventies to the Nineties.

Lee was also known to be adept at meeting high crosses easily, thanks to his 1.90-metre frame. But despite all that, he always had his feet firmly planted on the ground. 

“Dad was a mechanic at Borneo Motors, but after he got retrenched early, my mum worked as a baby-sitter, washerwoman and house cleaner to bring us up. And being the eldest child, much responsibility was also thrusted on my shoulders,” said a choked Lee when looking back and pondering about his growing up in a two-bedroom rented flat in the Commonwealth area.

“But I have had a blessed life, both in my career and sport, and I suppose I should be very grateful for that,” added Lee, who had spent almost 30 years in the waste management business and is now retired.

After playing several sports at school level, he excelled at badminton and was selected for the National Youth team at age 15. And he remembers most his match against former Singapore No. 1 and 1983 SEA Games champion Wong Shoon Keat in a schools’ third-round match where he stretched the favourite before losing 15-9, 15-9.

But he gave up all other sports when the former Football Association of Singapore chairman N. Ganesan spotted him during a Police Force competition and told the impressive goalkeeper to focus on football after drafting him into the National Youth team.

This despite the fact that he  was on the losing side — his team were beaten 2-1 by a well-organised Stable Boys XI in the final. At the prize presentation by Ganesan, he recalled the guest-of-honour’s brief words: “Boy, what is your name? You have good potential, come join the national youth team.”

That initiated an illustrious footballing career that saw him undertake a professional stint with Indonesian club Niac Mitra from1982 to1983 when he earned just over a handsome $100,000 a year in salary, bonuses and allowances included.

“That is all water under the bridge, let’s talk golf now,” said the proud father of four career-minded children whose educational achievements as graduates, he emphasises, “were down to my wife Nettie’s hard work and sacrifices.”

A few months after retiring from international football in 1997, Lee switched to golf by chance with the persuasion of Ang, who brought him to the driving range at Laguna National Golf and Country Club for regular sessions.

After a few weeks, Ang, a member of Tanah Merah Country Club, forced him to play rounds at the Garden course, and long after, he obtained his handicap. Then it was golfing ascendancy, and golf clubs in Singapore were abuzz with news of Lee’s supreme ability and prowess with golfers keen to play with him.

Lee was driving an average of 240 metres, and his handicap gradually dropped to an impressive five or six and his fame spread because he, as a member of the Golf Circle (a group of celebrity golfers), graced many local tournaments.

“I was once invited to play alongside the legendary German pro Bernhard Langer at the pro-am of the Johnnie Walker Classic, and I truly enjoyed the round,” said Lee, who currently play at least three times a week and travels the region for social games.

A recurring back problem that hindered him during his footballing days still troubles him, but the 14-handicapper who thrives on deft chipping and awesome putting is not one to give up golf.

“It’s a great game for networking and socialising, as emphasised in the Audi-presented Business Times Corporate Golf League. I wish I had taken it up earlier. I hope to play into my old age,” stressed Lee, who used to idolise Tiger Woods, but lately has switched his allegiance to Brooks Koepka.

Lee’s best score has been one-under-par at his “second home”, the National Service Resort and Country Club at Changi. That was when he was a single handicapper, but if you think that the relaxed Lee is easy meat these days, think again.

He rounded off the interview  with a modicum of modesty.  He said: “I just played a great game at Changi and thoroughly enjoyed it. Everything fell into place.”

“So what did you shoot?” I asked. “81”, he whispered.

The lean Lee still has a mean game. Back problem or not.

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