On Thursday after Nate Lashley shot 63 to open his week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, I wrote that he didn’t have the staying power to contend on the weekend. Not only did he contend on the weekend, he became just the second golfer this season to go wire-to-wire with no ties at a PGA Tour event (the other was Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship) for his first victory in the big leagues.
Lashley’s story is an incredible one, both in the macro and micro sense. His bigger narrative has been told, and you’ve likely caught at least bits and pieces. The synopsis is that in 2004, he lost his parents and girlfriend in a plane crash and never truly recovered. It led him to nearly quitting the sport seven years ago. The details could take up this entire column, so I’ll cut it there. But you should definitely read about the days and weeks that shape you forever.
The micro is less dramatic and less improbable, but also pretty amazing. Lashley wasn’t even supposed to be in this tournament. He tried to Monday qualify, didn’t make it and only got a slot when there was a WD earlier in the week!
What I hope doesn’t get lost here is just how spectacular Lashley was this week. I think sometimes when somebody with a great story like this wins, we do the thing where we completely ignore their on-course play. We shouldn’t! Lashley shot 63-67-63 over the first three days to open up the throttle on a field that couldn’t keep pace. He beat Dustin Johnson by 12 before D.J. missed the cut. He beat Rickie Fowler by 16 over the course of the week. He finished at 25 under after a 70 on Sunday, and beat last-place finisher Smylie Kaufman by 25.
Lashley split it equally between his tee-to-green play (third) and hit putting (second). It added up to a breezy weekend stroll. There was not even any remote drama to report from the final 18 holes. Lashley beat playing partner J.T. Poston by nine, and his six-stroke lead going into Sunday stayed steady. When you’re up five or six the entire day, steady is what you’re going for. Lashley made one bogey on the back nine all week. Sometimes, especially when you’re shooting for win No. 1, it’s almost harder to win by a lot, and it’s definitely difficult to go wire-to-wire. Lashley made it look easy, though. His sister and girlfriend were waiting for him with tears at the end.
Lashley has created a career of making difficult things look easy now, though. The former Arizona Wildcat has traveled maybe the toughest, darkest path of anybody on the PGA Tour, and he’s somehow come out on the other side a touring pro. And not just a touring pro, but one who can now call himself something so few pro golfers can ever call themselves no matter how good they are: a champion. If there’s an easier story to root for on the PGA Tour, I don’t know it, which is what made even a blowout on Sunday at the Rocket Mortgage Classic compelling. Grade: A+
Patrick Reed (T5): Looking a little thinner (more svelte?) than normal, Reed played one of his best tournaments of the year and even displayed a little bit of the panache that makes him both great and a lightning rod. Playing the 11th hole on Sunday, Reed came up well (WELL!) short of the stick but hollered, “I can’t hit it any better than that” anyway. I chortled. He cruised into T5 with a 70 in the final round. I need him involved at the Open Championship. Grade: A
Viktor Hovland (T13): I am currently embroiled in a controversial negotiation with our people at big CBS, asking them to distill a reel of Hovland’s drives, let it simmer, reduce it and inject it directly into my bloodstream. They’re hollering about liability and contractual obligations. All I do know is that Hovland has gained 16 strokes off the tee in his last three tournaments. His 64 on Sunday and T13 finish will give him some much-needed FedEx Cup points as he tries to get into the top 125 and earn his tour card for 2020 before the end of August. Grade: A
Dustin Johnson (MC): It was a curious missed cut for Johnson, who hasn’t skipped a weekend since The Open last summer. He actually played pretty well on Friday, but the hole he dug on Thursday when he shot 1-under 71 (which was actually a stroke worse than the field average) turned out to be too much to overcome. It probably doesn’t mean a ton, but I never like to see guys missing cuts in below-average fields like this one, especially when — like D.J. — it’s the final stop before the last major of 2019. Grade: F