The Rocket Mortgage Classic has crowned its first champion: Nate Lashley, who won the inaugural event in a wire-to-wire six-stroke romp.
But this was about so much more than a nice guy winning his first career event. It is a lachrymose tale of resiliency and perseverance that should provide inspiration to not just athletes, but those in every walk of life.
While a collegiate golfer at the University of Arizona, Lashley’s life turned upside-down on May 23, 2004, when both his parents and his girlfriend were killed in a plane crash on the way back from watching one of matches.
He was a good enough golfer to go pro, but mostly struggled, bouncing around the mini tours until the game got so difficult that he quit, entirely, acquiring his real estate license and flipping houses.
After some encouragement, Lashley returned to the game full time in 2015, and following a few successful years of bouncing between the Latin American PGA Tour and the then Web.com Tour, he finally made it to the big tour in 2018. His rookie season was not prolific, however; he made just eight cuts in 17 events with just two finishes inside the top 25 (one coming in a team event). He showed some flashes in 2019, but was, again, at risk of losing his card entering the week, sitting at 132nd in the FedExCup standings. Then this week happened.
And he was not even supposed to be here. Despite a relatively weak field for the debut of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, the 36-year-old Lashley did not qualify due to his ranking. He attempted to Monday qualify, but did not get in that route either. He eventually made it in as the third alternate when David Berganio, Jr. withdrew on Wednesday.
Lashley was the very last man in the field, and yet he was the one holding the trophy at the end.
As for the actual golf action, Detroit Golf Club was tough going for some of the biggest names: World No. 2 Dustin Johnson missed the cut – the first time he has missed the cut this year, and the first time he has missed a cut at a non-major in more than two years.
Gary Woodland, fresh off a breakthrough victory at the U.S. Open also missed the cut. Chez Reavie won by four at last week’s Traveler’s Championship, one week after finishing T3 at the U.S. Open. He also missed the cut in Detroit.
Rickie Fowler, the face of the tournament, made the cut, but his T46 finish was 16 strokes behind Lashley, who came into the week at No. 353 in the World Rankings.
Yet, for Lashley, it looked easy: A 9-under 63 on day one gave him a lead he never relinquished. He followed up that 63 with a 67, and after a second 63 on Saturday, he walked into Sunday’s finale with a six-stroke lead.
The prodigious advantage took a great deal of Sunday drama away, and despite never being in anything resembling the position before, Lashley barely blinked, shooting a 2-under 70 to reach 25-under-par for the week – six strokes better than Monday qualifier Doc Redman.
Despite it seeming like a foregone conclusion that Lashley would win coming into the final day (his name was even engraved on the trophy well before he finished), the fervent Michigan crowds embraced the Nebraska native like he was one of their own, and given everything he went through, and knowing how his life would change, it was impossible to look away.
In a sense, it felt like a victory for everyone.
Leaderboard: Final Top 10
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Nate Lashley -25 (-2)
2. Doc Redman -19 (-5)
3. Rory Sabbatini -18 (-4)
3. Wes Roach -18 (-4)
5. Brandt Snedeker -17 (-5)
5. Joaquin Niemann -17 (-4)
5. Ted Potter Jr. -17 (-4)
5. Brian Stuard -17 (-4)
5. Patrick Reed -17 (-2)
5. Cameron Tringale -17 (-1)
13. Viktor Hovland, Hideki Matsuyama -15
17. Billy Horschel -14
21. Jimmy Walker, J.B. Holmes -13
35. Aaron Wise, Charles Howell III -11
46. Rickie Fowler, Kevin Kisner, Cameron Champ -9
Notables Missing Cut
72. Brian Harman, Jason Dufner -4
90. Gary Woodland, Dustin Johnson, Corey Conners, Austin Cook -2
109.Bubba Watson, Chez Reavie, Russell Henley, Ryan Moore -1
How Nate Lashley Won the Rocket Mortgage Classic
Lashley has been a strong opening-round player all year, but unlike his other hot starts, he never cooled off. His opening-round 63 was followed by a second-round 67. He was paired in the final group on Saturday with Cameron Champ, the longest hitter the Tour has ever seen, who just came off a round where he played the front nine in 8-under 28. Yet, Champ was the one who looked intimidated on Saturday, falling apart while Lashley produced another 63.
With the big Sunday lead, Lashley birdied two of his first three holes to cushion himself even further, and even after two bogeys, he turned in even-par 36. He then played the back nine to a bogey-free 2-under en route to a 70.
Lashley’s 28 birdies for the week led the field. In fact, there were only two holes on the entire course he did not birdie at least one time. And of those birdies, only three were cancelled out with bogeys, two of which came in a four-hole span on Sunday when he was protecting his lead.
Every part of his game was clicking this week. In pacing the field in strokes gained: total, he was second on strokes gained: putting, third in strokes gained: tee-to-green and scrambling, fourth in greens in regulation, sixth in strokes gained: approach-the-green, and he hit double-digit fairways in all four rounds.
Lashley’s Winning Numbers
Driving: 2998 yards (43rd)
Fairways: 41/56, 73.2% (11th)
Greens: 59/72, 81.9% (4th)
Putts Per GIR: 93/1.576 (2nd)
Par-3: -1 (3 Birdies, 11 Pars, 2 Bogeys)
Par-4: -14 (15 Birdies, 24 Pars, 1 Bogey)
Par-5: -10 (10 Birdies, 6 Pars)
Total: -25 (28 Birdies, 41 Pars, 3 Bogeys)
What It Means For Lashley
Lashley has been fighting his entire professional career for security. Now he has it. The man who did not even know he would be playing this week until Wednesday is Tour exempt for the next two seasons.
The former Arizona Sun Devil has played in just one career major, but now is also exempt for next month’s Open Championship, and next year’s Masters and PGA Championship. He will also be in the field at TPC Sawgrass for next season’s PLAYERS Championship.
It is an unbelievable four-day turnaround for his career. His winning check for $1.314 million is nice on its own, especially considering he made just $296,650 over his 17 starts last season, but the amount that should reverberate from every door that has opened up with this win could be staggering.
All the clawing and fighting has finally paid off for Lashley.
Lashley’s 2019 PGA Tour Season
Missed Cuts: 4
Wins: 1 (Rocket Mort Classic)
Addtl Top 10s/20s: 1/3
Money Earned: $1,855,502 (44th)
FedExCup Pts: 759 (40th)
World Rank Before/After: 346/101
Another Life-Changing Week
Lashley’s heartwarming victory will garner the majority of the golf headlines this week, and deservedly so, but Detroit Golf Club was also the site of a life-changing week for another largely anonymous player: 2017 U.S. Amateur Champion Doc Redman.
The 711th ranked player in the world, Redman, like Lashley, had to go through Monday qualifying to make the field for this event. A member of Canada’s Mackenzie Tour, this was only the second PGA Tour event this year where the 21-year-old Redman made the field.
Redman shot a 5-under 67 on Sunday, his third consecutive 67, to reach 19-under for the week and finish in second place. By finishing solo-second, he received special temporary PGA Tour membership.
In addition, the Rocket Mortgage Classic was part of the Open Championship Qualifying Series, offering spots in the field to the top two finishes not already exempt. That ended up being Lashley and Redman.
Had Redman not pulled off a difficult up-and-down on the 18th hole, he would not have received that special membership, and the spot in The Open would have gone to Rory Sabbatini, who finished in a tie for third.
Viktor Hovland, the 21-year-old Norweigan, keeps making headlines. The man who set the all-time amateur scoring record when he finished T12 at the U.S. Open just two weeks ago, shot a final-round 8-under 64 to finish T13 in Detroit.
That 64 tied for the co-low round of the final day, and raised him 39 spots up the final leaderboard. The man who tied Hovland on Sunday was one of the bigger names left in the field: Billy Horschel.
Teeing off early in round four, Horschel had four birdies and an eagle on his card, allowing him to rocket 41 spots up the leaderboard, into a share of 17th. Horschel has impressively made 20 cuts in 21 starts in the current season.
Former PGA Championship winner Jimmy Walker is in the midst of a poor season when compared to the high standard he set from 2014-2016, but he was one of the best players in the Sunday field this week, shooting a 6-under 66 to jump from 52nd place into a tie for 21st, just his third top-25 in 19 starts this year.
Now at 137th in the FedExCup Standings, Walker still has more work to if he wants to make the playoffs. In five weeks, the top 125 in the standings will advance to the first round.
For the second day in a row, Lashley’s final round playing partner stumbled under the pressure. On Sunday, it was J.T. Poston, who shot a 1-over 73 to drop from second place, into a tie for 11th.
A double-bogey on the second hole threw off Poston’s game, and he failed to notch a birdie until just five holes remained. The 26-year-old hit just five fairways on Sunday, and after carding 22 birdies over the first three rounds, he had just two on the final day. It was a tough way to end an otherwise great week, but Poston has done enough on the year to lock up his Tour card for next season, which has been a struggle for him in the past.
Charles Howell III was in contention through two rounds, but a third-round 71 knocked him off the pace, and he was even worse on Sunday. The only member of the top 15 of the FedExCup Standings to make the cut this week, Howell III parred out the front nine and then bogeyed three of his final five holes to shoot a 2-over 74 and drop from inside the top 10 into a share of 35th place.
It was still his best result in nearly two months, however.
The only man to shoot worse on Sunday than Howell III was Harris English. A 3-over 75 caused him to plummet 36 spots down the final leaderboard, from T19 to T55. It was a very painful final round for a man who, earlier in the week, looked like he would rise considerably from his position of 134th in the FedExCup Standings.
English is now 136th, despite making nine of his last 11 cuts.
“Just really emotional right now. I’m thankful I got into the golf tournament, really. But winning on the PGA Tour has always been a dream, and getting that done today is a great accomplishment and I’m just really happy.”
– Nate Lashley, Rocket Mortgage Champion