A record eight Fijians earned a place in this year’s Fiji International presented by Fiji Airways field.
And that’s thanks largely to the determination of World Number 2042 Sam Lee.
Three-time major champion, Natadola Bay Championship Golf Course designer and host Vijay Singh has teed it up every year since the tournament began in 2014.
For the third straight year, three-time Japan Tour winner Dinesh Chand was handed a tournament invite.
Four spots in the $AU1.25 million tri-sanctioned event were again on offer to the top locals at an annual local qualifier.
And played in June each year, the highest-placed local at the Fiji Open in Denarau punches a ticket to their country’s biggest sporting event.
The winner of the Fiji Open in Denarau, a tournament that hasn’t seen a home champion since 2002, also secures a place in the Fiji International presented by Fiji Airways.
That gave 28-year-old Lee an idea.
Edge out ISPS Handa PGA Tour of Australasia regulars Josh Munn, James Anstiss and defending champion Kieran Muir, win in Denarau and help a fellow countryman sneak into the field.
“I’ve been playing well all of this year, just trying to get better here and there,” Lee told the media on Thursday.
“One of my goals the last few years was to win the Fiji Open because that gives an extra spot to the locals.
“The last few years I used up the local qualifying or the best local finisher in the Fiji Open.
Lee held the lead through two rounds and a closing 68 was enough for a drought breaking three-shot win.
“So yeah, I got it done this time around!” said Lee.
Lee’s run of form began by finishing fourth at December’s Final Stage of Qualifying School and has continued with top-25 results at the PNG Open and WA PGA Championship.
In the opening round on Thursday morning, Nadi-based Lee proved again he belongs at this level with a 2-under 70 highlighted by three birdies and an eagle in his last 11 holes.
“I knew it was going to be windy today so I was mentally prepared,” said Lee, “and having played this course a lot of times in the wind, I think I was a bit more comfortable.
“I’ve played here so many times, so I knew the wind was going to be pretty strong. Just expect the wind and just try to play calm golf. One shot at a time.”
Despite playing in his fifth straight Fiji International presented by Fiji Airways – and racking up finishes of T26, T33 and T47 since debuting – Lee couldn’t avoid the first tee nerves.
Paired with three-time European Tour winner Richard Green and former PGA Tour player Rhein Gibson, Lee didn’t look out of place and finished as the only member of his group in the red.
“I got a bit jittery the first few holes, but I stayed calm and tried to make as little mistakes as possible,” said Lee.
“Just breathe and try to focus on the shot, just calculate how far I have to hit it in the wind.
“Try to stay in the present.”
The present might be good, but Lee’s future looks even brighter.