Warrior pro has stayed the course in Rowan County junior golf scene
LANDIS — Brian Lee shows the thank-you card he received recently from a middle-school golfer.
During a championship tournament, when conditions were allowing the marking of balls in the fairway, this same young man had hit a drive on a playoff hole that was barely off the fairway.
He was in contention to win but mistakenly moved the ball to mark it, later realized his error and called a stroke penalty on himself.
Lee was in the crowd of 80 to 85 spectators who saw the player do the right thing.
“It cost him the tournament, but it was a character-building moment,” Lee said.
The hand-written note to Lee came a couple of days later.
“I am truly thankful that you came over after the first playoff hole and talked to me about the unfortunate situation,” the boy said. “That lesson will always stay with me in my future golfing experiences.”
Few men have played a more important role in the junior golf scene in Rowan County than Brian Lee, PGA professional at the Warrior Golf Club.
His lessons — as an instructor or coach — usually start with a message about respecting the game. To Lee, golf is a character-building sport that teaches honesty, discipline and manners.
Players in this sport constantly have to deal with failure, and in learning it, kids gain respect for themselves, other people and the golf courses they play.
Lee thinks those lessons end up translating to other aspects of their lives later on.
“Golf is a great model to go by,” Lee says. “... Golf is the only sport you call a foul on yourself — you own up to it.”
Chanaka Yatawara says etiquette and rules were the first things Lee stressed to his golfing daughters, Lily and Grace.
“When they learn that at age 10 and 11, it stays with them,” says Yatawara, who has seen enough junior tournaments as a parent to witness times when young golfers don’t handle the game as well as they should.
“He’s the greatest influence for junior golf, and he supports it 100 percent. I don’t know anyone who supports junior golf more than Brian.”
For many years, Lee has coached Salisbury Academy middle-schoolers, generating a pipeline of golfers for high school programs in the county, particularly Salisbury High, whose boys and girls teams have won nine state championships combined over the past 20 years.
Lee can tell you the year for each one. His 2007 team at Salisbury Academy also won the state tournament for middle schools.
With Lee as its pro, the Warrior has been a big supporter of junior golf.
For the past three years, it has partnered with Irish Creek in Kannapolis to host the Rowan Junior Open.
South Rowan High, Salisbury High, China Grove Middle and Salisbury Academy teams use the Warrior as their home course, allowing boys and girls teams to practice and play their matches at no charge.
The Warrior often has been the venue for Rowan County and regional high school tournaments.
Since the Warrior opened in 1999, Lee established two summer camps that continue to sell out each year.
“He has preached the importance of getting the juniors interested in golf and growing the game,” says Rick Houston, one of the Warrior partners.
“Brian is very humble and wants no credit, but I feel he needs to be recognized for his sincere contribution to helping our juniors.”
On cue, Lee gives credit for young golfers’ success in Rowan County to all the high school coaches and the Warrior’s assistant pro, Andrew Beaver, who has taken over the summer clinics.
But Lee sees a lot of the young Rowan County golfers every day on his course, at lessons, in the summer clinics and at the high school and junior tournaments.
Yatawara says Lee attended every regional and state match his oldest daughter Lily competed in for Salisbury High, and he often still hears her say, “This is how Mr. Lee says it is done.”
Players turning pro
Lily Yatawara, who took her first golf lesson from Lee and played for him at Salisbury Academy, will head to Appalachian State University this fall on a golf scholarship.
Will Collins, a state champion at Salisbury High and accomplished Atlantic Coast Conference golfer at the University of Virginia, recently turned professional. He also played as a youngster for Lee.
Lee thinks another of his former players, Alex Nianouris, has a game worthy of professional status some day. The All-State golfer at Salisbury High will be attending Davidson College on a golf scholarship.
Brian Lee’s own son, Alex, and Troy Beaver also enjoyed a middle-school state championship with him before becoming two-time state champions at Salisbury High.
Alex Lee and Beaver will be golfing at Catawba College and Elon University, respectively.
The list of young players influenced by Lee goes on and includes names such as his oldest daughter, Allison, who golfs for Winthrop University; Roy Dixon, a golfer for the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; Lauren Smith, at Appalachian State University; and Caroline Dula, Coker College.
Getting his start
Getting involved with junior golf was a no-brainer for Lee.
“I wanted the kids I was associated with to have the same opportunities I had,” he says.
Brian’s father taught him the fundamentals of golf before he was a teenager.
But it was countless summer days at Cedarwood Country Club in Charlotte where Brian honed his skills — and fell in love with the game.
His mother would drop him off at Cedarwood at 8 a.m., and his father would come to the course after work. They would play as many holes as they could before dark.
“It’s a great way to spend time with your dad — quality time,” Lee says.
In between his mother’s dropping him off and his dad’s joining him later, Brian played the course by himself, or he latched on with an older men’s group that played around lunchtime.
He also entered all the area junior tournaments he could.
Lee has three holes-in-one in his career, and they all came when he was a 16-year-old junior golfer — two at Cedarwood (on different holes) and the other in the Old North State Junior Tournament in Raleigh.
He won the Junior Interclub Championship for Mecklenburg County — a 36-hole event held at the Raintree Country Club.
He won another junior tournament in Fort Mill, S.C. Lee starred as a golfer at East Mecklenburg High School, where he graduated in 1983. He then accepted a golfing scholarship to Catawba College — a school he had never heard of — at the encouragement of coach Charlie Little. He really hasn’t left Rowan County since.
“It became home for me,” he says.
Lee met his wife, Melody, at Catawba. After graduation in 1987 as a history and recreation management major, Lee briefly played golf on a professional mini tour based out of Myrtle Beach, S.C.
But six months was enough for Lee and pro golf. He came back to Rowan County and eventually took a job full-time with Gene Auten at Corbin Hills Golf Club.
He initially worked as the assistant pro under Jeff Austin before taking over as head pro when Austin left for Kannapolis, now Irish Creek. Lee served as the Corbin pro until 1998 when he departed for the newly forming Warrior.
Lee’s involvement in junior golf started at Corbin Hills, where he began holding clinics for young players every month.
The clinics were straightforward, starting with stance, grip, swing and, importantly, how to act on the course.
Lee has never tolerated temper tantrums from players upset at their game. He would pull them off the course and ask them to return the next time with a better attitude and approach.
While Allison and Alex Lee became avid golfers, it did not wear off on Brian and Melody’s youngest daughter, Abby.
“She has watched more golf than any kid ever,” Brian says. “She just had her fill of it early on.”
Abby, 13, has focused instead on volleyball and soccer.
Brian says he and Melody love to see the accomplishments of all their children — their own and those they’ve come to know through golf.
A new crop of young golfers are on the horizon in Rowan County, Lee promises.
Trust him, he knows.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.