Alternate Nate Lashley fires opening-round 63, leads birdie bonanza in Detroit
Detroit — On Monday afternoon, Nate Lashley packed up his golf bag outside the clubhouse at The Orchards Golf Club without much of a plan.
He’d just shot a 68 in the open qualifier for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, two shy of a score that would have given him a shot at a playoff for a spot in the PGA Tour stop being played this week at Detroit Golf Club.
Lashley could have headed home back to the Phoenix area, but his status on Tour this year left him as the third alternate for the field. That was enough reason for Lashley to hang around and even play a practice round on Tuesday.
It proved to be the right call.
On Wednesday, David Berganio withdrew, opening up a spot for Lashley. On Thursday morning, Lashley responded with a 9-under 63, his lowest round of the year, to grab the first-round lead of the inaugural PGA Tour event when birdies were coming in bunches for the entire field.
“Obviously I made a lot of putts,” said Lashley, who earned his Tour card in 2018 and is playing this season on conditional status. “Had a couple nice saves early in my round. I had a really nice save on 3 out of the bunker, made a par there. But yeah, I putted well, I drove it pretty well. I hit it really well on the back nine. But 9-under, you’re kind of doing everything well. Just hopefully I can continue that through the week.”
To continue that might be a tough ask for a guy that ranks No. 353 in the world. However, that would also be ignoring the fact Lashley is no slouch.
He’s already earned more than $600,000 this year with four top-10 finishes, his best a tie for eighth at the Puerto Rico Open. A first-round 67 at the U.S. Open had him on the first page of the leaderboard in an event he eventually finished tied for 28th.
That play has carried over into this week.
“Mindset wise I’m just trying to stay relaxed and play confident golf out there,” Lashley said. “Take it one shot at a time, you know, the same old thing. It’s not easy to do. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow. Hopefully I’ll go out there and play like today, play relaxed and have some fun.”
Being relaxed can be tough when trying to make tournaments through Monday qualifiers. At last week’s Travelers Championship, Lashley was the first alternate but a spot never opened.
That changed this week, but it doesn’t make things any easier.
“When you’re the first alternate it’s not a whole lot of fun,” Lashley said. “That feeling of only missing getting in the event by a spot, by a person.”
He didn’t miss it this time and he’s making the most of it.
“Hopefully I can play well this week and continue to play well and lock up my card and go from there,” Lashley said.
Lashley’s round came in the morning when scoring conditions were optimal. The afternoon didn’t yield as many low scores, but Ryan Armour and Nick Watney both fired 8-under 64 to sit one shot back.
Armour started quickly with birdies at five of his first seven holes before he carded three on the final nine while closing with back-to-back birdies at Nos. 8 and 9.
“I made a 40-footer on 12 and all of a sudden the flood gates opened and started hitting it better and my rhythm was good,” Armour said. “From about 12 on I hit it really well and gave myself a lot of chances.”
The birdie barrage was felt throughout the field. Seven players shot 7-under 65 while another 13 were at 6-under 66. By the end of the round, 121 golfers were under par.
“I think 8-, 9-, 10-under is not out of the question on a day like today,” said Rickie Fowler, who shot 4-under 64. “If you drive it well you can make kind of a stress-free mid-60s round pretty quickly out here.”
Among the players at 7-under were 2009 British Open champions Stewart Cink, last week’s winner Chez Reavie and Charles Howell III, who was 6-under on the four par-5s with two eagles and two birdies.
“If you drive it good you take advantage of it,” Howell said. “If you miss the fairways at all, now the layups and stuff get goofy. But it’s the best I’ve played four par-5s in a round of golf in, I think, ever, including at home. I’m not expecting that to happen again, but it was nice to get it today.”
Jackson native and former Oakland University star Brian Stuard was among the golfers who were at 6-under. He birdied five of his final seven holes and had the home crowd roaring.
“I didn’t get off to a very good start,” Stuard said, “and I guess about No. 16, my seventh hole, I made a good putt and kind of got me going. Then I hit some really nice iron shots on the back nine.”
While most of the field enjoyed the low scores, it wasn’t the case for two of the most notable golfers in the field.
Dustin Johnson, the No. 2-ranked golfer in the world, shot 1-under 71 while U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland, playing his first event since winning the major, shot 1-over 73.
Johnson had two double bogeys on the round, both at par-3s. He birdied his final two holes to build some momentum. Woodland, meanwhile, was at 5-over at one point and in last place before birdies on four of his final six holes.
“It was nice to get it to one (over),” Woodland said, “ and give myself a chance to play three more days.”