Nate Lashley has led from the opening round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, after a third-round 67. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Detroit — When Nate Lashley knocked in his 5-foot putt for birdie at No. 18 on Saturday to take a six-shot lead entering the final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, it was official.
Yes, this was better than flipping houses.
On the verge of his first PGA Tour victory after shooting another flawless 9-under 63 during the third round at Detroit Golf Club, Lashley spent plenty of time fielding questions about what it took to get to this point.
It’s understandable considering Lashley’s journey. In 2004, when Lashley was playing in college at Arizona, his parents and girlfriend had flown to Oregon to watch Lashley play in a tournament. On the way back home to Nebraska, their plane crashed and all three died.
By 2006, Lashley earned a spot in his first PGA Tour event but missed the cut in Tucson. From there, the grind of trying to make it took its toll. In 2012, he decided he was done and used his real estate license to flip houses. Before too long, the itch to make it was back. He played on the PGA’s Latin American Tour and then the Korn Ferry Tour before working his way to conditional status on the PGA Tour this season.
“Yeah, it definitely crosses your mind,” Lashley said of what he’s overcome. “It came through my mind at one point today. At some points it's not easy, but it goes through your mind and it's something that's always going to be there for me.”
The label as PGA Tour champion appears just as likely to be with Lashley by the time things wrap up on Sunday evening. Little has bothered him throughout the week, not even the fact he played in Monday’s open qualifier and failed to earn a spot in the field.
“You’ve got to make a lot of putts on those Mondays,” Lashley said, “and I guess I was saving them for the tournament.”
Saving them proved to be the right move. Lashley has managed to play in 14 events this season, earning more than $600,000 and ranking 132nd in FedEx cup points. That allowed him to be the third alternate this week, and after a few withdrawals, he nabbed the final spot in the field.
It didn’t take long for him to take advantage as Lashley shot a 9-under 63 during Thursday’s first round and backed that up with a 5-under 67 on Friday. He was flawless again on Saturday, making nine birdies to begin to run away with the tournament and create a huge cushion entering the final round.
It’s that big lead that might be as tough to play with as the fact Lashley is on the verge of a career-changing moment.
“Try not to think about the six-shot lead,” Lashley said with a laugh as he described his approach for Sunday. “I'll just try to go out tomorrow and stay aggressive, keep trying to make birdies, take it one shot at a time and see what happens at the end of the day.”
There will be a handful of players giving chase, but the odds are they’re all playing for second.
J.T. Poston shot 6-under 66 on Saturday to get to 17-under and earn a spot in the final group with Lashley.
“If you're in the final, you're going to have a shot at winning the tournament no matter how far back you are,” Poston said. “Nate's obviously playing some great golf, so I'm going to have to play really good tomorrow if I'm going to catch him.”
Cameron Tringale shot 7-under 65 to move to 16-under for the tournament while 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed was at 15-under after he, too, had a 7-under round of 65 on Saturday.
“It was about time, honestly,” Reed said. “I felt like I've been hitting the ball really well. Earlier this week I was putting myself right where I needed to be in every close spot possible and I was just not making putts. Putts were burning edges left and right. I'd be reading break that wasn't there. Today, to see the ball go in on the first hole just kind of settled me down. I was able to get the confidence going on to really feel like I was seeing the lines well.”
Other notable scores included a 7-under 65 from Jackson native Brian Stuard, who is 10 shots back at 13-under. Hideki Matsuyama was also at 13-under while Brandt Snedeker had things going early in the day and shot 7-under 65 to get to 12-under for the tournament.
Rickie Fowler, the Rocket Mortgage brand ambassador and at No. 14 the highest ranked player left in the field, shot par 72 on Saturday and is 8-under for the tournament.
But as much as some might have been hoping to see the big names fight it out this weekend — world No. 2 Dustin Johnson, U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland and two-time Master champ Bubba Watson all missed the cut — this has become Lashley’s show.
If he wins he’ll be the first on Tour to do so as an alternate since Vaughan Taylor won the 2016 Pebble Beach Pro-Am.
That’s great, but a win would mean so much more. Aside from the $1.3 million winner’s check, Lashley would earn a two-year exemption, ending his days on the alternate list for at least two years. It would also land him a spot in next year’s Masters and PGA Championship.
That’s all at Lashley’s fingertips on Sunday when he stands on the first tee at Detroit Golf Club.
“I always felt like I had the talent and ability to play out here and it was just a matter of getting out here and getting comfortable,” Lashley said. “It's not an easy thing to do, by no means, but take some time and I feel like I'm finally there and hopefully I can take advantage tomorrow.”