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Perryville's Wilson takes second shot at golf, career
There may be numerous golfers in the 144-man field at the 105th Missouri Amateur that just completed their first year of college eligibility.
The odds are pretty good that Lee Wilson of Perryville, Mo., will be the only 37-year-old among that group when the six-day tournament begins today at Dalhousie Golf Club.
Wilson, a two-time high school state champion from South Carolina, is in the midst of a mulligan with the sport and his career path. The married father of two recently wrapped up his first season of college golf at Mineral Area College after a lengthy hiatus from competitive golf, and he is one of 10 local golfers who have qualified for the state's top amateur event.
Wilson, who moved to the area two years ago, is competing in his second Missouri Amateur. He shot an 82 in the qualifier at Dalhousie last year but injured himself on the fourth hole of his practice round at Boone Valley and shot rounds of 89 and 90 to miss the 64-man cut for the match-play portion of the tournament.
The experience served as his return to competitive golf after a break of more than 15 years.
"I should have withdrawn but it had been so long and I had worked so long to get there," Wilson said. "I just went ahead and pushed through it, and it was terrible. It was ugly."
It wasn't the type of outcome that he was accustomed to during his youth, when he built quite a resume.
"Tough pill to swallow," Wilson said. "Kind of makes you wonder if your ship done sailed and you're too old and what not."
He won the South Carolina Independent Schools Association state tournament as a 14-year-old freshman at Thornwell High School in Clinton, S.C., and repeated as a sophomore.
He opened tournament his freshman year with a 69 that included his first hole-in-one.
He also won a pair of major junior circuit tournaments for the entire Carolina region during that time frame and appeared to be on the fast track to a college scholarship.
"I could have went anywhere in the country," Wilson said.
That is if the success continued. As it turned out he didn't play for his high school team his final two years due to an assortment of problems away from the course.
"Academics and just messing around," Wilson said about his derailment. "It was unfortunate."
He was a standout in a hotbed of youth golf that produced the likes of 2009 U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover.
"I hit it farther than everybody," Wilson said. "There was no doubt the talent was there. I just needed a little more direction and discipline, I guess."
He entered his family's grocery business after high school and continued to play golf, winning a pair of club championships at Lakeside Country Club in Laurens, S.C., where he fired his career-low round of 62.
He later became an insurance adjuster, which took him up and down the East Coast and ultimately to the love of his life. While in North Carolina he met his wife, Lani, who originally was from Perryville.
"She drug me out here to Missouri, and it's been good," Wilson said.
The couple has two children -- 7-year-old son Ethan and 1-year-old daughter Talulah.
Wilson enrolled as a full-time student at Mineral Area College to pursue a degree in elementary education.
He also took on a minor of sorts, dealing with a lost past when he found out the school had a fledgling golf team.
He became a team member during his second year at the school and tried to reassemble his neglected game.
"It's definitely something you need to maintain," Wilson said. "And I wouldn't be taking too much of a layoff. My mind still thinks I can shoot 62 in flip flops, but that's not the case."
He met with some success while gathering the scattered pieces.
Wilson became the first medalist in the program's history when he won the Hannibal-LaGrange Invitational in April, that after he led the Maryville Invitational with an opening-round 69 at Aberdeen Golf Club in Eureka, Mo., before settling for a top-five finish during the fall season.
"I won the MAC student-athlete of the year," Wilson said. "So it's kind of funny how things change once you grow up a little bit. I had a 3.5 GPA. God's got a sense of humor. It's kind of surreal with some of the trouble I've had in my past and the instability.
"That's kind of why I wanted to get into teaching. I just didn't get a whole lot of fulfillment in trying to chase the dollar, so I just figured go on back to school and teach the kids and just kind of share some of my checkered past with them and recognize some of the early signs of troubled students that I might make a difference in helping some of these guys out."
And he's been able to lend some perspective to older students as he works toward a career with younger ones.
"I had a good job. I was living on the beach and living the dream so to speak. Now I'm really living the dream, doing this," Wilson said. "It's a lot of fun, especially playing with kids half my age. It's been quite interesting.
"And seeing them make some of the same mistakes I made. I can talk to them. There's a big age void there, but it's definitely benefited them as well."
As the team's top golfer he played in the NJCAA Division II national tournament in May in Plymouth, Ind., where he finished 70th in the 142-player field.
"I'm still not where I want to be. There's been flashes here and there of the old game," Wilson said. "Enough to keep me coming back when I think about giving it up."
He plans to return to North Carolina this fall when he transfers to Appalachian State to complete his degree, which is his primary focus.
"It takes a lot of pressure off the golf game now, because golf is who I used to be," Wilson said. "Now I'm a student and a future teacher. Anything that golf does now is just a bonus."
He's thankful for his family's support as he makes amends for past mistakes.
And he's looking to amend a bad showing at last year's Missouri Amateur when he tees off at 7:48 a.m. today.
"I'm absolutely expecting to do much better than [last year]," Wilson said. "Getting into the match play is the goal, and after that point anything can happen."