Nate Lashley on verge of life-changing win at Rocket Mortgage Classic

DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JUNE 29: Nate Lashley reacts after making birdie on the 18th green during round three of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Country Club on June 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
DETROIT, MICHIGAN - JUNE 29: Nate Lashley reacts after making birdie on the 18th green during round three of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at the Detroit Country Club on June 29, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images) /

Nate Lashley holds a dominant lead heading into the final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, and he wasn’t even in the field until Wednesday afternoon.

Nate Lashley has been cruising at the inaugural Rocket Mortgage Classic, and now he’s just 18 holes away from winning his first PGA TOUR championship. The fact that he wasn’t even in the field until Wednesday afternoon will surprise most casual fans.

The fact that he’s even continued his golf career to get to this point, though, is the much more inspiring story.

It’s not a new story, but one that many may not have heard. A 36-year-old out of the University of Arizona, Nate Lashley lost both of his parents and his girlfriend in his junior year, when their plane crashed as they returned home from watching him compete at the NCAA West Regional.

Jason Sobel wrote a moving piece on Lashley in 2017 for ESPN, right as he won for the first time on what was then the Tour. That singular moment could have taken Lashley out of golf forever. Instead, he used golf as his outlet, a release from the grief and a way to fulfill what his family would have wanted.

Lashley turned pro when he graduated from Arizona in 2005, but as is often the case, the very real challenges of a blossoming pro career all came to fruition. Missing 12 of 14 cuts in 2006, he lost status and turned to a “real” job in real estate to pay the bills while playing mini tours. He suffered injuries, and didn’t seem to be making much headway as he approached his 30th birthday.

He quit golf entirely in 2012. But after six months away, the bug came back and he realized he wasn’t done chasing the dream.

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He clawed his way onto the PGA TOUR LatinoAmerica in 2015, winning there three times in 2016. That led to a promotion to what is now the Korn Ferry Tour in 2017, and his victory at the Corales Puntacana Resort and Club Championship gave him the key he had been waiting more than a decade for.

He earned his PGA TOUR membership for 2018. Lashley made eight cuts in 17 starts last season, despite battling through a knee injury, with his top finish a tie for 15th at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. He also earned a T-18 at the Houston Open, and wound up with just under $300,000 in prize money.

Lashley was granted a minor medical extension for playing privileges this season, but he failed to meet the standard when he missed the cut at the Corales Puntacana, the same event he won two years ago to earn his Tour card.

Chip McDaniel has made headlines this year as “Mr. Monday”, and he earned a sponsor’s exemption to the Rocket Mortgage Classic this week. Nate Lashley, unfortunately, had no such luck. He shot 4-under in the Monday qualifier, but missed the mark, eventually finding himself as third alternate. As fate would have it – and one could argue fate could be a lot nicer to this guy – a few withdrawals later, the phone rang Wednesday afternoon. Lashley was in, and he hasn’t looked back.

This is a guy who has shot two rounds of 63 already this week in Detroit, taking a commanding six-shot lead into the finale. Players with significantly higher profiles dot the leaderboard, but Lashley’s laser-like focus is paying off in dramatic fashion.

"“It was just one of those days where really nothing could go wrong,” he said on Saturday. “Even when I hit bad shots, I wasn’t really getting in trouble.”"

Such a lead might be a burden to some when they first find themselves at center stage, with the brightest lights in the game shone directly upon them. It could certainly crush even the best among us, but Lashley seems to be built to withstand even that kind of pressure.

His coaches, teammates, managers, all say the same things: this progress isn’t a surprise. Nate Lashley has put all of his heart, grit and determination into making what once seemed an impossible dream become a reality. The challenges, sacrifice and tragedy along the way are still with him, but they’ve also steeled his resolve.

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Now, after almost 15 years, one round of golf stands between Nate Lashley and the ultimate prize. The leaderboard at the Rocket Mortgage Classic may not appear to have much drama, but the finish could be a must-see event.