One of the things I’ve learned about the sport of golf in my 48 years is that it doesn’t discriminate.
Good shots are usually rewarded, bad ones punished, and scorecard excuses mean nothing.
Despite what some golfers would like to think, the only person responsible for their performance is the one swinging the club.
There are superstars, journeymen veterans and rookies who have the opportunity to write their own story every week on the PGA Tour.
Everyone knows the superstar stories. Tiger Woods winning the Masters after an 11-year major championship drought is understandably the story of the 2019 season thus far.
If Rory McIlroy wins The Open Championship in two weeks just miles from where he grew up at Royal Portrush, he will dominate the headlines.
But it’s the lesser-known players that intrigue me.
These are the guys who don’t have guaranteed $100 million endorsements contracts and their own private jets, the guys who have toiled on mini tours for years, often away from their families, wearing whatever logo on their shirt they can find in exchange for a few bucks, who finally find a way to break through – sometimes despite unthinkable tragedy – that make this sport stand out.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of “that guy” than Nate Lashley.
One player’s tale
Lashley’s story is fit for Hollywood movie, though some would still find it hard to believe.
Everyone knows about Woods’ comeback story at Augusta. Now the golf world knows of a different kind of comeback story from a guy known by almost no one until last week.
Fifteen years ago, Lashley’s parents and girlfriend traveled to a tournament to watch him compete for the University of Arizona.
On their flight home, their plane – piloted by his father – crashed, killing all three.
Suddenly alone, his interest in golf understandably disappeared.
Lashley was away from the game for years, staying busy selling real estate.
Eventually, he decided to get back into the sport he loved and earned his Tour card for this season. He has competed in 16 events, missing the cut five times.
Prior to Rocket Mortgage Classic that ended on June 30 in Detroit, his best finishes were a tie for eighth at the Puerto Rico Open in February and tie for 28th at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
Then came Detroit. To call what Lashley did there “life-changing” is not hyperbole. Winning a golf tournament, as 20-year-old Matthew Wolff found out by taking the title at the inaugural 3M Open at TPC Twin Cities Sunday in Blaine, is literally life-changing.
Sure, the victory put more than $1.3 million into his bank account, but victories on the PGA Tour mean much more than a financial windfall.
Lashley had a PGA Tour card, but because he wasn’t fully exempt, he had to take a “wait and see” approach to get into events or go through Monday qualifiers.
He tried Monday qualifying for the Rocket Mortgage, but did not make it.
As an alternate, he hung around Detroit hoping to get in the field and found out Wednesday he was in.
Five days later, he was a first-time winner on Tour. That victory gives him a two-year exemption on Tour, meaning he can play in whatever event he chooses.
He also will play in The Open Championship in two weeks, and the victory also earned him an invitation to the Masters Tournament in April.
Life-changing? Absolutely. Once the mainstream media learned of Lashley’s story, they jumped on it.
The day after his breakthrough victory, where he was first greeted by his sister and girlfriend on the 18th green, he flew to New York and appeared on NBC’s “Today Show” and “Nightly News.” Two days later, he was in Blaine preparing for the 3M Open after a whirlwind 48 hours.
“Yeah, life has changed a lot in two days,” Lashley said after a practice round the day before the 3M Open. “My phone’s been blowing up and just constant phone calls and messages. That’s something that comes along with winning. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
“When I finally got the call that I got into the (Rocket Mortgage), it was just a relief. I played well at the U.S. Open, so I feel like I needed to get into an event to keep moving up on that Fed Ex Cup list, because then it creates more pressure toward the end of the season. I was just thankful to get in. I wasn’t thinking about winning. My goal was to finish the top 10, but I started off hot that first round and I thought, ‘Hey, if I can follow up it up the next day, I’m going to have a chance.’ Then on Saturday, nothing could go wrong.”
Playing with a big lead in the final round has often led to collapses, especially for players who haven’t won. But Lashley started strong Sunday and never looked back.
The win also provided Lashley preferred status when it comes to pairings and tee times, instead of starting at the crack of dawn or finishing at sunset with lesser-known players.
Lashley was paired with 44-time winner and five-time major champion Phil Mickelson and rising star Tony Finau for the first two rounds.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Lashley missed the 36-hole cut by four shots after shooting an even-par 142 over 36 holes.
But he’s not lost sight of the big picture, knowing he can relax a bit and not put added pressure on himself for finishing in the top 125 to qualify for the Fed Ex Cup playoffs.
“I went from finishing in the dark to playing with Phil and Tony,” Lashley said. “I didn’t quite realize how much it would change my life, but it’s going to be wonderful. I couldn’t ask for more.”
The inaugural 3M Open in Blaine appears to have been widely successful, producing another “life-changing” victory.
Sunday’s large crowd at TPC Twin Cities was treated to a dramatic finish when 20-year-old Matthew Wolff eagled the 18th to earn his first victory in only his fourth PGA Tour start.
Wolff became the third player to win the NCAA individual champion and a PGA Tour event in the same year, joining Woods and Ben Crenshaw.
Wolff’s funky swing and astounding power wowed the crowds on his way to his win.
Tournament director Hollis Cavner, who convinced the likes of Mickelson and Brooks Koepka to play in the event, had to be pleased that both Koepka and Day made the cut on the number (4-under) to play the weekend.
The presence of Minnesota fan favorite Tom Lehman also played a role in the event’s success. Lehman, 60, helped redesign the course to strengthen it for the world’s best players and turned in an impressive showing against the young guns, shooting rounds of 67-69-68-73 to tie for 58th. He received a roaring ovation on the 18th green before knocking in a 3-footer for birdie to finish the tournament.
Editor’s Note: Tom Fenton was a sportswriter for 15 years before joining the Union-Times. He has covered the PGA Championship, U.S. Amateur, Greater Milwaukee Open and numerous Minnesota amateur tournaments.
In April, he played Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, which will host The Open Championship later this month.