Rocket man: It’s triumph after tragedy for Nate Lashley with first win in Detroit
Detroit — Life is so darn hard. And golf, same.
For Nate Lashley, it's been especially true, on both counts.
But on Sunday, that was one rather stress-free stroll in the sun as the second-year PGA Tour player ho-hummed his way to a 2-under 70 to win the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic by six shots with a 25-under-par total.
"Nothing's quite sunk in yet," Lashley said more than an hour after he tapped in for par on the 18th hole, removed his cap, and put on his championship smile.
"I've been through a lot."
That's not a statement. It's an understatement.
Two 63s, on Thursday and Saturday, gave Lashley the comfortable cushion he needed to simply avoid disaster Sunday and claim his first PGA Tour title. And he did just that, setting the tone early with a first-hole birdie.
Lashley, the 36-year-old from Nebraska, was a wire-to-wire winner, leading after every round, the second player to do that on the PGA Tour this year, along with superstar Brooks Koepka, who did it at the PGA Championship. Lashley made one bogey over his first three rounds, then made two Sunday, but it hardly mattered, as nobody ever got closer than five shots from the lead.
The rewards are exceptional for Lashley, who now gets to play in the British Open next month, and gets into next year's Masters and PGA Championship. He's now exempt on the PGA Tour through next season, meaning he won't be having to try his luck at Monday qualifiers the rest of this season or next, as he did this week.
"Job security, for one," said Lashley, who still keeps his realtor's license back home in Arizona. "It's a dream come true."
"And a nice check, to boot," said his caddie, Ricky Romano, a veteran looper on Tour.
Lashley takes home the $1.314 million first-place prize. Coming into this week, he had made $1,380,364 in professional golf earnings, over four tours and eight years.
All that after he teed up at The Orchards in Washington Township on Monday and didn't qualify, putting him as the third alternate into the field. Lashley finally got word he was in the tournament late Wednesday morning, the last man in of 156 who teed it up this week, following the tournament's third withdrawal of the week.
The victory is easily the pinnacle of Lashley's professional career — he once was so frustrated by the game, he gave it up to flip houses — and perhaps of his life — which forever will be marred by unspeakable tragedy. In 2004, Lashley's girlfriend, Leslie Hofmeister, and both of his parents, father and pilot of the Mooney M20K, Rod, and mother, Char, were killed in a plane crash when they slammed into the side of a mountain during a snow squall in Pinedale, Wyoming.
Lashley doesn't like to talk much about that awful day and the thousands of awful days since; he barely said a handful of words on the subject when asked about it earlier in the week. Of course, he's not a man of many words anyway. He has his passions, including steak and sports and especially his Nebraska Cornhuskers, but talking isn't one of them.
This week, his clubs made more than enough statements for the two of them.
Still, Lashley acknowledged thinking of his parents, especially when walking up the fairway at the par-4 18th, as fans were starting to serenade him with a loud ovation.
"It took a lot of years for me to get over my parents' death, for sure," Lashley said. "It was mentally holding me back for a long time.
"There were a couple times out there late in the round where it's — it happens all the time. I think about my parents all the time. And thinking about them today, I was getting a little emotional even walking up 18, even before I hit my second shot, thinking about my parents. Because without them, I wouldn't be sitting here right now."
Lashley was joined on the golf course Sunday by many friends, as well as his girlfriend, Ashlie Reed, who flew in via charter from Nebraska, and his sister, Brooke Lashley, who flew in from Scottsdale, Arizona. Ashlie and Brooke cheered loudly near the 18th green.
Doc Redman, who won Monday's qualifier at The Orchards, finished runner-up after a second-round 67, which is huge for him, too. That earns Redman, who took a red eye from Seattle to Detroit late Sunday night, some status for the rest of the PGA Tour season, and this also earns him a trip to the British Open.
"I knew what was at stake," said Redman, "but I was trying not to think about it."
PGA Tour veteran Rory Sabbatini (68) and Wes Roach (68) tied for third and 18 under.
Oakland alum Brian Stuard made a charge up the leaderboard early Sunday, then made a birdie at 18 for a huge roar from his fans, new and old, to finish off a 68 that left him in a six-way tie for fifth, at 17 under, that included 2013 Masters champ Patrick Reed.
"If you told me I'd shoot 17 under, I'd probably have taken it before the week started," said Stuard, who received more than 450 ticket requests from friends and family this week, and obliged them all. "You know, it's been awesome, and pretty special."
Stuard, with his third top-10 finish of the season, now will take a week off, while Petoskey's Joey Garber heads to next week's 3M Open in suburban Minneapolis, one of two new PGA Tour stops this season, along with Detroit's wildly successful debut.
Garber shot a Sunday 69, making a tricky 5-foot putt for par on the 18th to elicit a rowdy ovation from the gallery and also secure a top-30 finish, his third in the last three tournaments. He finished tied for 29th.
"Being here for over a week, back in my home state, my favorite city, Detroit, it's really been cool to play in front of friends and family," Garber said. "And a lot of fans.
"Hopefully I've got a lot more people rooting for me."
Same goes for Lashley, who was embraced by Detroit from his opening round, and it never really stopped. It just accelerated. Detroit loves an underdog story, and this is one for the ages. He hadn't even been to Detroit before this week. Book it, he'll be back, and for many years to come.
Actually, he was in in absolutely no hurry to leave town Sunday, as most PGA Tour pros are. Lashley was planning on moving hotels, from a northern suburb, to downtown Detroit, to celebrate his new-found fortune.
Tournament officials, meanwhile, will toast a successful first swing at a Detroit Tour stop.
There was perfect weather all week, the birdies were plentiful, and they never ran out of beer, so crowds were huge all week, doubling in size from Thursday to Friday, doubling again from Friday to Saturday, and then by the far the biggest showing Sunday. Lines for several hours Sunday morning were perhaps hundreds deep, at multiple entry points. PGA Tour officials don't announce weekly attendance figures anymore, but it's believed more than 70,000, and perhaps even more than 80,000, came to Detroit Golf Club during tournament week, which began with practice rounds Tuesday and Wednesday.
Truth be told, many golf fans actually got to see Detroit Golf Club before Lashley did.
Again, it wasn't until Wednesday, less than 24 hours before the first official tee shots, that Lashley finally got into the field (his caddie made a late Tuesday flight from Phoenix on the chance he got in), after a Monday qualifying performance that went bust.
For Lashley, those hard day and restless nights are over now.
Many better times lie ahead.
"It was surreal," Lashley said, sitting by the tournament trophy, made of steel at its base, perhaps like Lashley himself. "It's just an unreal feeling. Just so happy to be in Detroit, and I'll always remember this place.
"Going to be a special place to me."