Rejoice in 'out-of-nowhere' winners like Nate Lashley, but appreciate they've prepped for such moments their entire lives
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On the night of April 1, 1985, in the final seconds of Villanova’s stunning upset of Georgetown in the NCAA men’s basketball national-championship game, the Wildcats’ Ed Pinckney went to the foul line. Villanova led, 64-62, with less than 10 seconds remaining. It was one-and-one, Pinckney having to make the first shot to get a second. If Pinckney made both free throws, Georgetown—out of timeouts—would have no chance to win the game. If he missed the first shot, the Hoyas would be able to tie.
As Pinckney stepped to the line, I said to my friend Tony Kornheiser, then a Washington Post columnist (now a millionaire ESPN pundit): “I’m not sure I can watch.”
Make no mistake, I was rooting for Villanova. I almost always pull for the underdog, and as luck would have it, I’d covered all six of the Wildcats’ tournament games that spring. I’d gotten close enough to Villanova coach Rollie Massimino that he invited me to fly to Philadelphia on the team plane the next morning. When the plane landed, everyone was loaded onto flatbed trucks for a parade to City Hall. I covered the victory parade while in the parade.
Kornheiser had laughed at me as Pinckney went to the line: “He’s not going to miss. He’s trained his entire life for this moment. He’s dreamed this moment forever.”
He was right. Pinckney made both shots. The Hoyas scored to make it 66-64, Villanova inbounded, and the clock ran out. The miracle happened.
I think back to that night often on a weekend like this past one, when someone like Nate Lashley goes from wandering the wilderness of professional golf to being a millionaire with a two-year-plus guaranteed spot on the luxury liner known as the PGA Tour.
Ranked 353rd in the world going into the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, Lashley was the last man into the field as an alternate after failing to Monday-qualify. His bravura performance—he won by an astounding six shots at 25 under par—makes him golf’s latest nowhere-to-everywhere story.
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Lashley is the 10th first-time winner on the PGA Tour in the 2018-’19 season. At 36, he is the oldest, as well (the youngest was Cameron Champ, who was 23 when he won in Mississippi last November). Lashley also might be the least likely, although Desert Classic winner Adam Long could rival him in that category.
Lashley knows firsthand that a missed four-footer or a 5-iron in the water isn’t tragic. He dealt with real tragedy 15 years ago, when his parents and girlfriend were killed in a plane crash flying home from watching him play in the NCAA West Regional in Oregon. That’s why the weekly PGA Tour send-the-family-out-for-a-hug-and-kiss-with-the-winner moment had some real emotion attached to it Sunday when Lashley’s sister Brooke joined his girlfriend, Ashlie Rego, on the green. The moment clearly was more emotional for Brooke Lashley—which is understandable.
There aren’t many things in sports more life-changing than a first win on the PGA Tour. Like many late-blooming players, Lashley bounced around on minor-league tours for years before finally making it to the big tour last season. A knee injury limited him to 17 events in the 2017-’18, and he began this season playing on a minor-medical extension. When he failed to earn enough FedEx Cup points in his allotted tournaments to retain his card, he was forced to play 2019 on limited 126-150 status, which made him an alternate for the field last week. He just missed in Monday qualifying, and then found out Wednesday he would get to play.
It’s natural when someone like Lashley, especially someone with a genuinely compelling story, comes from almost complete anonymity to not just contend but win, that we marvel at his cool, his ability to make putts under pressure, to handle the moment as if he’s done it a million times before.
Here’s the thing: He has. They all have. Anyone who plays a sport as a kid has his fantasy moments.
I certainly had them. I spent hours hitting tennis balls against a wall under the West Side Highway, blowing away Roy Emerson, Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe at Wimbledon. I made Boston Celtics guards K.C. Jones and Sam Jones (both in the Hall of Fame) look silly when I took them on in Riverside Park as the Knicks’ point guard—with no one watching. And, when I was older, I made every big putt as darkness closed in at Gardiner’s Bay Country Club after I had closed the golf shop for the day.
Boy, was I good. We all are. Except only a few actually have the talent to live out those fantasies the way Pinckney did for Villanova in 1985.
John Daly did it at the PGA Championship in 1991, when he got into the field as the ninth alternate and never flinched with the lead on Sunday on his way to a historic win. Twelve years later, Ben Curtis was ranked 396th in the world when he found himself fighting Vijay Singh, Thomas Bjorn, Davis Love III and Tiger Woods for the Open Championship at Royal St. George’s. The kid had no chance against those guys. Except he won.
A month later, Shaun Micheel, who hadn’t won a PGA Tour event, hit a 7-iron to six inches on the 18th hole at Oak Hill to clinch the 2003 PGA. “I just told myself, ‘You’ve hit this shot thousands of times; this is no different,’ ” Micheel told me years later. “I wasn’t thinking about the circumstances, I was just playing golf. It’s what I do.”
This is what they do, what they’ve trained to do, and what they’ve dreamed about. They all know what’s at stake, which is why it is so critical to—as the cliché goes—stay in the present.
If Lashley had started picturing himself with the trophy or hugging his sister or with the check for $1.314 million or teeing it up at the Masters next April, he surely would have started spraying shots all over the place. It happens to everyone at some point.
As Gary Woodland walked up the 18th hole at Pebble Beach 15 days ago, knowing he had a two-shot lead in the U.S. Open, he reminded himself of what had happened to him on Maui six months earlier. “I birdied 14 for a three-shot lead and thought to myself, I’ve got this,” Woodland said. “Next thing I know, Xander [Schauffele] is making eagle at 18, and I end up losing by one. You can’t let yourself think the golf tournament is over until the ball is in the hole at 18.”
Lashley was in the very unusual position of actually being able to let down a little on the 18th hole with that massive lead. As Jim Nantz pointed out during the CBS broadcast, “he needs a 9 here to win.” That was with Lashley’s tee shot already in the fairway. One swing and two putts later, he had joined the club of players who go from nonexempt to “having a job for the next two years,” as the players like to call the exemption that comes with a victory.
More important, it means you’ve achieved something you’ve dreamed about almost from the moment you pick up a club as a kid. Sure, no one stands in the gloaming on the putting green and says, “This to win the Rocket Mortgage Classic,” or for that matter, any other weekly event on tour. It’s always to win the Masters or the U.S. Open.
But when you grow up and understand how hard it is to make a living playing golf, lining up that putt to win the Rocket Mortgage Classic or the Puerto Rico Open or, in Long’s case, the Desert Classic, you bet any of them is huge.
Long’s victory in Palm Springs in January might have been the most remarkable of all the first-timers this season. He had played in five PGA Tour events before that day and had made one cut. He found himself in the last group on Sunday and spent the entire afternoon listening to the army of Phil Mickelson supporters cheer their hero’s every move, and an almost-as-loud assemblage of Canadian fans backing Adam Hadwin.
“I kind of felt like I was in the shadows all day,” Long said when it was over.
And yet, he stood on the 18th green with a 20-foot putt to win, a putt he’d made hundreds of times before in his life. And, just like Pinckney all those years ago, he nailed it.
Before Saturday’s third round in Detroit, Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee said of Lashley, who was starting the day with a one-shot lead: “We’re going to find out a lot about Nate Lashley today.”
Lashley shot 63. We learned a lot about him. My guess is he knew it all along.
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