'It's gonna be a thrill': Nate Lashley feels special bond with Detroit, eager to return for RMC
Detroit — From last one in to first one in — that's the story of Nate Lashley at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.
Last June, Lashley was a 36-year-old journeyman with no tour status who didn't earn his way into the PGA Tour tournament through Monday qualifying, but rather as an alternate just hours before players were scheduled to tee off that Thursday.
This May, when Year 2 of Detroit's first-ever PGA Tour tournament rolls around, Lashley will technically be the first player to have secured a spot in the field.
That just one of the many perks for the defending champion.
"I mean, it's gonna be great. I'm looking forward to it," Lashley told The Detroit News during a recent interview. "All these tournaments that I'm looking forward to playing, coming back to the Rocket Mortgage Classic is right at the top of my list."
Right after Augusta? It's OK, you can say it.
"That might be fair to say," Lashley said with a laugh, "but to be introduced as a defending champion, that's going to be a thrill.
"It's something I'm going to remember for the rest of my life."
Lashley, now 37, took the field by storm last year, finishing at 25 under par through four rounds at Detroit Golf Club. Nobody else finished in the 20s. Runner-up was a kid named Doc Redman, a Monday qualifier who finished six strokes back.
That Sunday of tournament week was a great walk unspoiled for Lashley, a perfect fit for Detroit — a blue-collar guy who had never before won a PGA Tour tournament, and really had never even come close to winning. He had won once on the Web.com, the PGA Tour's feeder tour, and three times on the PGA Tour Latinoamérica, all since 2016.
He now finds his name among some splendid golf legends who have won tournaments in Michigan — Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer and Tiger Woods, among them.
That's why a kid who grew up in Nebraska, and went to school in Arizona, now feels a special bond with Michigan.
"I think I'll always feel connected to the city — getting your first win here, the way it happened with the Detroit fans, Detroit Golf Club being so great to me," Lashley said. "I'm always going to love it here. I'm always going to come back any chance I get.
"Anything I can ever do for the City of Detroit, I'll always make myself available."
Lashley was in Detroit in November, taking part in the Thanksgiving Day parade and attending the Lions game, thrilling fans by chugging a pair of Coors Lights when he appeared on the video board from the Quicken Loans suite.
It wasn't much unlike how he celebrated his victory last summer, first by hosting an impromptu beer bash on the patio at Detroit Golf Club, then with an overnight stay at MGM Grand Detroit, where he enjoyed a good meal, several drinks and a little bit of gambling — avoiding losing too much of his $1.314-million first-place check.
The victory took a huge weight of the shoulders of Lashley, a late bloomer in golf circles who never knew when his next tournament would be. Now, he's set for a while. The win came with a two-year PGA Tour exemption, allowing him to pick much of his schedule, while avoiding the grueling, stressful Monday qualifiers.
It also got him into some big tournaments, like this year's Masters, the PGA Championship, and Tour Championship.
Lashley has been to Augusta once, last year, as a fan. Now, he gets inside the ropes.
"It's gonna be a dream," Lashley said. "I'll probably be wandering around a couple days, not even knowing where I am."
The win in Detroit couldn't have come at a better time, though Lashley didn't really know it at the time.
It was at the British Open in July — another perk of winning the Rocket Mortgage Classic — where he started to notice some shoulder pain. He went to the doctor and learned he had bone spurs and needed surgery. Had he found that out without any PGA Tour status, it wouldn't been stressful considering taking time off for surgery. Now, he had the luxury of taking the time out without suffering financial implications.
"That would've been extremely hard, taking a month-and-a-half off," Lashley said.
He had the surgery in early November, halting a 2019-20 season that began in promising fashion, with a third-place finish. He also had a tie for 20th.
He returned last week in Hawaii at the Tournament of Champions — another perk — and finished tied for 19th. Lashley is still in Hawaii, in this week's Sony Open.
After that, he's looking at playing some of the world's most famous courses, including Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach and Riviera, sandwiched in between those a trip to the Phoenix Open — a homecoming for the University of Arizona alum.
"That's the biggest change, job security," said Lashley, who entered this week 43rd in FedEx Cup points. "For me, it's not about the money and it's not about the recognition or stuff like that. I just want to be out there, I want to have fun. I want to play golf and have a good time. Have a couple good years and relax, and focus on getting better."
The first taste of life as a PGA Tour champion came immediately after winning in Detroit.
The day after winning, he flew to New York, for an appearance on "Good Morning America" on Tuesday. He then flew to Minneapolis on Tuesday night, to play the 3M Open. A week earlier, he began the week as a no-name; at the 3M Open, he found himself in a feature pairing, with Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau.
The "GMA" appearance focused on his captivating life story, headlined by the 2004 plane crash that killed both of his parents and his girlfriend. They were returning home from Oregon, where Lashley had competed in the NCAAs, and crashed in Wyoming.
Lashley is a rather shy guy, who didn't open up much about the crash until after he won the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He dispelled any idea that he doesn't want to talk about the tragedy, though.
"My story is my story, that's my life," Lashley said. "If it wasn't for my parents and for what they did for me when I was younger — helping me to play sports and get out there and do things a lot of people don't have the opportunity to do — without that, I wouldn't be here right now. That's my story.
"It'll always be a part of my life."
And now, so, too, will Detroit.
Rocket Mortgage Classic
When: May 28-31
Where: Detroit Golf Club
Defending champion: Nate Lashley
Tickets: Available at RocketMortgageClassic.com. Daily grounds tickets, $15-60; weekly grounds pass, $180; juniors 15 and younger, free.