FRANKENMUTH – It was fitting, perhaps, that Sophia Lee led her Frankenmuth High School golf team at the Division 4 girls’ golf state finals Oct. 20 in Allendale, in conditions reporters called “brutal” – with the temperature around 40 degrees, a bone-chilling high wind advisory, rain, lightning and even hail.
Lee, a 17-year-old senior, knows something about weathering a storm.
Sure, her stroke total of 187 was best on her team that finished sixth at that two-day Lower Peninsula state finals event ending Oct. 20. And, true, she finished 19th overall among 108 golfers at The Meadows course at Grand Valley State University.
Sophia Lee, however, has stood tall in other ways, considering she endured three surgeries in 14 months from December of 2015 through February of 2017 – necessary operations due to severe scoliosis of her spine.
And considering that – as someone with two 15-inch titanium rods, more than 15 titanium screws and multiple bone grafts in her back – Lee shines at golf, a sport that, by its nature, can involve twists and turns of the spine.
“Impressive is an understatement,” said Kyle Martin, PGA head golf professional at The Fortress golf course in Frankenmuth, who worked with Lee – known as “Sophi” or “Soph” (pronounced “SOAF”) – to create a new golf swing after her 2015 surgery inserted the titanium structures in her back. The metal parts, and bone grafts, are part of a procedure designed to allow her vertebrae to fuse together.
“I always have a ‘word of the day,’ and if I could pick a word of the day, every day, for Sophi, it would be ‘persevere,’” Martin said. “Nothing has deterred her from achieving her goals.”
Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine occurring most often during the growth spurt before puberty, according to mayoclinic.org. Lee displayed a severe form of the condition, with two 50-degree sideways curves in her spine.
But last week, Sophia Lee seemed far from the hospital room at Royal Oak’s Beaumont Hospital, where she endured the six-hour surgery in 2015 to install the rods, screws and bone grafts – and which required a second surgery days later to remove blood clots and clean what Sophia calls the “hardware” in her back.
Lee, the 6-foot tall daughter of Dan and Lori Lee of Frankenmuth, is laid-back and quick to laugh, and exhibits a sense of humor while chatting with a reporter while she carried her bag of clubs on the first hole at The Fortress, the Frankenmuth team’s home course.
The head of the 3-wood club in her golf bag is covered with a furry whimsical gopher, resembling the one hunted by obsessed assistant greenkeeper Carl Spackler (played by Bill Murray) in the 1980 movie “Caddyshack.”
“I asked for an otter, but my family got me a gopher and I like it way better than an otter,” Sophia said. “It doesn’t fit my driver, so I have to put it on my 3-wood.”
Sophia Lee is “curious and chill – very much like a mediator, and just kind of gets along with everybody,” said Lori Lee, 45, of her daughter.
The mellowness, maybe, helps Sophia Lee deal with her limitations since the surgeries. Following the first two operations, doctors wouldn’t let her resume rigorous physical activity for eight months. She underwent the third operation in 2017 after one of the screws inserted into her spine broke loose from the titanium rod, causing discomfort.
“I’ve played with girls who can hit the ball way harder than I can,” Lee said. “I’m getting out my driver and they’re getting out a 5-iron.”
In Sophia Lee’s family, though, staying physically active is a priority. Her brother, Jack Lee, 19, plays on the men’s soccer team at Calvin College in Grand Rapids. Her sister, junior Maura Lee, 16, plays on the Frankenmuth High girls’ soccer and girls’ golf teams.
And over time, after practice sessions and with feedback from Sophia, The Fortress pro Kyle Martin – a graduate of Caro High School – helped Sophia find a new swing.
“One thing we did is we altered the ball position a little bit,” Martin said. “We talked more about knee movement so that her hips and shoulders can turn together instead of trying to separate those (hip movements from shoulder movements) – because they literally just won’t move separately due to the surgeries. Those rods won’t allow that separate movement.”
Lori Lee said Sophia “can’t bend her spine – you have to imagine those two rods are in there.”
“So she has really nice posture,” Lori Lee said.
Doing more with less
Doug Schneider, head coach of the Frankenmuth High girls’ golf team, stated in an email to The Advertiser that Sophia had to learn to “not get frustrated with her new limitations.”
“In the past three years, I’ve never ‘swung’ at the ball; I’ve just kind of let my weight go through it, because swinging at it is dangerous, and I feel like something’s going to break or I’m going to twist wrong,” Sophia Lee said. “I don’t know if I could get more distance out of my shots, but I don’t care.”
Lee, who took up golf in the summer before her freshman year in high school, wasn’t apathetic about preparing for improvement, according to Martin. The golf instructor was asked if he’s surprised at Lee’s achievements – after her surgeries and setbacks – on one of the state’s high-performing girls’ golf teams.
“This might come across as tough, but absolutely not,” Martin said. “One thing is her personality and her perseverance haven’t allowed really anything to get in her way, and that allowed me to kind of build a mindset of ‘OK, well the sky’s the limit.’
“The other part of that is she and I communicate on a game plan of ‘OK, here’s where our scores are right now, and here’s where I think we can be, and here’s where she thinks we can be.’ Then we create steps on how to get there. Nothing really comes as a surprise, because it’s all pre-game planning in the way we structure her lessons and what we work on in each session. It’s just kind of meeting the expectations that we’ve developed together.”
Expectations, however, were put on hold when Sophia Lee learned her condition in the summer of 2014.
“She went for a sports physical before the end of that summer before eighth grade,” said Dan Lee, 45, Sophia’s father. “And they said, ‘Maybe you should get an X-ray.’ So she did. But we never heard anything. So no news from a doctor is good news.
“So the next summer, before ninth grade starts, she’s deciding to play golf, and we get her lessons at The Fortress, and she starts golfing and she comes to me one day and says, ‘My back is sore.’
“And I thought ‘Of course your back is sore – you’ve never golfed before.’ So I said, ‘You need to stretch out,’ and I had her bend over and touch her toes, and her back was just – I saw it. One shoulder was elevated, and (the spine) was all twisted, and I thought ‘Oh God.’”
Sophia, who said she didn’t realize the issues with her spine, saw a doctor the next day.
“When we were starting to get into the whole medical thing, honestly, I was a little excited,” Sophia Lee said. “I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m like the center of attention. I’m gonna get a surgery! Ooh, this is cool.’”
“And then reality sets in,” Lori Lee explained. “This was very scary for us as parents, for all the reasons I’m sure you’re imagining. You worry about the things that could go wrong in a surgery, and you are in the spinal column, so you worry about things like paralysis.”
Lori Lee added that choosing surgery “was a hard decision because we’re making a decision, essentially, for her quality of life for the rest of her life.”
Some seasons lost
Due to the first spinal surgery – lasting about six hours – Sophia Lee missed her freshman year of soccer with a Frankenmuth High School team, which she called a major disappointment.
“My dad has played soccer his whole life, so all of us kids have played soccer our whole lives,” Sophia said. “It’s my first love.”
Lee also missed several months of school while recovering from the surgery, and when she did return to class, she said “I couldn’t sit a full day in school, so I would have to go to the counselor’s office and lay down.”
“She had the best counselor ever,” Lori Lee said. “She used to let her just come in and lay on the floor.”
More adversity arrived, however, in January of 2017, during Sophia Lee’s sophomore year.
“I was getting ready for school one day and I was lifting up my left leg to put on my shoe, and the left side of my back popped, and I heard it and I felt it,” Sophia Lee said. “That screw at the bottom (of one rod) – the head of the screw popped off, so the screw was still in my spine but it wasn’t connected to the rod anymore.”
About one month later, she underwent another surgery, which prevented her participation on the school soccer team her sophomore year.
“After that (incident) in sophomore year, when the screw broke (loose) in January, it can be very disheartening, you know?” Lori Lee said. “But she was so positive about it, even knowing that she might have to have surgery again.”
Surgery took place in early February of 2017 to correct the issue. That fall, though, Lee made major contributions to the girls’ golf team, shooting a then-personal best score of 90 for 18 holes at Midland Country Club, and playing for the Frankenmuth High squad at the Lower Peninsula state finals, where the Eagles finished seventh. She was named to the second team on an all-conference squad.
Lee also played soccer this spring for the girls’ varsity squad, scoring nine goals.
“I finally got to play soccer. I made the varsity team and I was very happy about that,” Lee said. “They don’t like me heading the ball very much because of the impact, but sometimes I have to. If it’s coming right at my head, I can’t just let it go by.”
Sophia Lee didn’t miss her chance this fall, either, when it came time to reach new heights as a golfer. She fired her best score of 88 for 18 holes – again at the Midland Country Club – and recorded the best score for her team at both the state regional tournament and state finals.
She was named first team all-conference in golf, and chosen for Frankenmuth High’s homecoming court.
Her grade-point average is higher than 4.0, according to coach Schneider, who stated she’ll be named to the Michigan Interscholastic Golf Coaches Association’s academic all-state squad this fall. Lee volunteers once each month as a member of the Beaumont Hospital Teen Advisory Council striving to improve patient care for teenagers.
She also was one of three Frankenmuth High School students – along with Kiera Robinson and Airyonna Palmer – to be awarded Frankenmuth Sister City Committee scholarships to travel to and from Germany and spend several weeks in Gunzenhausen, which is Frankenmuth’s “Sister City.”
Lee hopes to become a biology major in college, seeking minors in German and economics. Sophia and her two siblings and their parents – Dan Lee works for the state Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division while Lori Lee works for Saginaw Township Community Schools – plan to run a half-marathon together in Indianapolis in May.
Varsity golf coach Schneider wrote that Sophia Lee “is super determined to be her best in anything she sets her mind to.”
Lee said that, privately, she had doubts about whether golf was for her.
“There is always a point in your golf season where you say ‘I am done with this, I can’t hit the ball anymore,’ and you’re getting really high scores,” Lee said.
But she carried on, and figures her physical recovery, and athletic improvement, have been a team effort. She thanked Kyle Martin for helping her learn – and re-learn – a game she barely played until she was about to become a high-school freshman.
“He has taught me everything I know about golf, and he has helped me through all four years (of high-school golf),” Sophia Lee said. “We created my swing – twice.”
Martin said Lee stayed focused on golf in the winter months, attending indoor training sessions – complete with a golf simulator estimating direction and distance on shots.
Sophia Lee believes her story may resonate with others meeting adversity.
“I think anybody who knows me – those in my soccer families and my golf families – knows now that if their daughter faces (a challenge), they can deal with it,” Lee said.
“They certainly don’t want their daughters to go through this, but they know that if they ever have to face a challenge like I did, they can certainly get through it and they’ll have support from all the families that I did. It may take a couple of years, but we have a great community.”
As the kid who persevered, maybe that’s Sophia Lee’s final contribution – and lasting example – to those in the Frankenmuth High golf program, and elsewhere.
“I really laugh when I have juniors that come in and they come up with excuses on why they haven’t been practicing golf or anything,” Martin said. “Then I ask ‘Do you know Sophi?’
“And that’s the end of the conversation, because they know exactly where I’m going with it.”