Defending RMC champ Nate Lashley's life has changed, fondness for Detroit hasn't
Detroit — It wasn't always a guarantee that the Rocket Mortgage Classic would still be on the PGA Tour's schedule post-coronavirus shutdown.
In other words, it wasn't always a guarantee that Nate Lashley would be able to defend his first title.
That actually would've fit right in with Lashley's story, given his biggest professional win prior to 2019 was the Puntacana Resort and Club Championship in the Dominican Republic in 2017. In 2018, that tournament had been promoted to the PGA Tour's schedule — so while Lashley still technically had a chance to defend, it wasn't quite the same.
"I mean, we were kind of unknowing about the schedule, what was going to happen obviously there for a month or two," Lashley said Tuesday, the first day of practice ahead of the tournament, set for Thursday through Sunday. "It was nice to see that they rescheduled Detroit.
"It's great to be back here."
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The PGA Tour canceled 10 tournaments in all amid the pandemic. But not wanting to stunt the momentum the Rocket Mortgage Classic had built in its inaugural season, it kept Detroit on the schedule — albeit, with no fans (those won't be allowed until Memorial in two weeks), and a different date on the schedule, in early July, rather than late May.
So, admittedly, it'll be different for Lashley, 37, who went from unknown to crowd darling in 2019, when he torched the course to the tune of 25 under par to win by six strokes.
His fan support grew from nothing at the beginning of the week to a lovefest by the time he tapped in for the win Sunday evening, the galleries drawn to his underdog story — which didn't just start and end with his world ranking, 353rd, but also his back story. He lost his parents and his girlfriend in a plane crash in 2004.
Lashley doesn't mind talking about the accident. It's part of his story, he has said.
But he wasn't asked about it once Tuesday. He was asked about a tournament that forever will hold a special place in his heart, no matter where his career goes from here.
"I mean, it was a lot of fun," Lashley said. "It was a little bit of a blur for me, trying to get a first PGA Tour win. It's a grind for sure, but the fans were great.
"I had a wonderful time and it's something I'll never forget, last year in Detroit."
The win was life-changing, in so many ways. For starters, it earned the journeyman a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour. He earned a $1.35-million check, which he parlayed into a new home in Arizona, which has one room that worked well for a home gym — and that's where his Rocket Mortgage Classic trophy resides.
Being the first Rocket Mortgage Classic champ also earned him a new sponsor — Rocket Mortgage, which had its logo on the front right of the polo shirt he wore Tuesday, joining the old standby, time-share company Diamond Resorts, on the front left. Lashley signed a contract with Rocket Mortgage after his win last year, and the deal runs through the 2020-21 season.
It also earned him some more "sexy" pairings, if you will. The tournament after the Rocket last year, he drew Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau. This week, he starts in one of the four "featured" groups. He goes off at 7:45 a.m. Thursday and 1 p.m. Friday, alongside Rocket Mortgage's other pitchman, Rickie Fowler, as well as world No. 6 Webb Simpson.
Are the more high-profile pairings better for him or his sponsors?
"Well, probably both," Lashley said. "It's meaningful to me, for sure."
This is actually Lashley's second trip back to Detroit since he won here last June. In November, he got to ride in the Thanksgiving Day parade, hitting foam golf balls into the delighted crowd on a frigid day, then warming up in a suite inside Ford Field, where he watched the Lions game and drank a few — OK several — Coors Lights.
Lashley got a huge cheer when he was shown on the big-screen at Ford Field, chugging one of those brews.
There won't be those cheers at Detroit Golf Club this week, just as there haven't been the last three weeks — not that Lashley could tell the difference, given he's missed the cut in his two events since the restart. He's actually missed four in a row, going back to before the pandemic shutdown, cooling a season that seemed so promising early on, with a couple ties for third.
Perhaps it'll just take another four days in Detroit — a familiar scene, albeit under unfamiliar circumstances — to get him going again.
"Obviously, I was looking forward to coming back here," Lashley said. "You get to defend a tournament you won, and the way the fans were so great to me last year, I was really looking forward to coming back and interacting with the fans. It's not going to happen this year, but hopefully next year everything will be back to normal and hopefully play well this year and still next year I get some nice ovations.
"But like I said, it's different. It's disappointing that the fans aren't going to be out there, but we're still looking forward to playing and, you know, hopefully giving people some entertainment on TV."
Rocket Mortgage Classic
Where: Detroit Golf Club
Defending champion: Nate Lashley
Notable players: Webb Simpson, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau, Tyrrell Hatton, Tony Finau, Sungjae Im, Hideki Matsuyama, Rickie Fowler, Kevin Na, Danny Willett, Kevin Kisner, Erik van Rooyen, Christian Bezuidenhout, Bubba Watson, Matt Wallace, Rafa Cabrera Bello, Brandt Snedeker, Jason Day, Steve Stricker, Padraig Harrington, Vijay Singh
TV: Thursday-Friday — Golf Channel, 3-6 p.m; Saturday-Sunday — Golf Channel, 1-3 p.m; CBS, 3-6 p.m.
Wednesday: Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Harold Varner III and Wesley Bryan will play a nine-hole exhibition for charity, and it will air live on Golf Channel from 1-3 p.m.
Tickets: None; the event will be held without fans because of COVID-19.