A bond beyond golf between Ben Carroll and Lanto Griffin

Griffin and Carroll are going to have a long friendship together and share more than just an interest in golf and the talent to play it at a high level.

115
Lanto Griffin celebrates winning the Houston Open. (Picture credit - Sam Greenwood - Getty Images)

Jan 01, 2020: Ben Carroll was in eighth grade when he met Lanto Griffin for the first time.

The teenager knew about him, of course. Griffin was chasing his dream on the mini-tours, but he used to hit balls on the range at Blacksburg (Virginia) Country Club – where he still holds a share of the course record of 61 — just like Carroll was doing that day.

Carroll’s instructor, Brad Ewing, and Griffin were friends. Carroll recently had won his age group at the Virginia state amateur, and Ewing thought the two should meet.

“I said, ‘Watch this kid hit some balls. He’s definitely got some skills,’ ” Ewing recalls.

Carroll was on the putting green when Griffin, who was spending a few days at home before heading to the next tournament in gosh-knows-where, came up and then started talking with him. The teen and the 20-something ended up playing three holes together.

“Seeing him on the green, he was a half-foot taller than me and probably outweighed me by 60 pounds,” Carroll remembers of Griffin. “So, it was a little intimidating meeting somebody that size.

“But I mean, he just is a very normal person. Just came up to me and just had normal conversation. So, it wasn’t anything out of the blue.”

The conversation didn’t stop there, though.

For the past four years or so, there have been phone calls and texts exchanged. Two years ago, Carroll attended A Military Tribute at The Greenbrier to watch Griffin play a practice round.

“He actually walked along the ropes (with me) and we talked,” Carroll recalls.

This time, though, the conversation was particularly memorable. That’s because it’s the day that Griffin, who was a rookie on the PGA TOUR at the time, told his young friend that he was going to give Carroll a scholarship to help him out in college.

The gesture made quite an impression on the soft-spoken Carroll.

“It’s really, really cool to see that a person that, I look up to … as a golfer and a person (wants to help me),” he says of Griffin, who won the Houston Open in the fall portion of the 2019-20 season, which landed him a spot in this week’s Sentry Tournament of Champions.

“I mean a professiobnal golfer that’s won on the PGA Tour is investing in my life and wanting to help me reach that same level”. – Ben Carroll.

Two weeks before he and Carroll talked at that West Virginia resort, Griffin had won $10,000 at a closest-to-the-pin contest at the Travelers Championship. He remembered the money the Roanoke Valley Golf Hall of Fame had given him when he went away to play golf at Virginia Commonwealth. He knew what a difference that had made in his life, and he wanted to do the same for someone else.

So, Griffin donated the money he won at Travelers to the Hall of Fame, and the organization used it to form a scholarship in his name with the caveat that he pick the recipient. A fundraiser last year added substantially to the coffers, and Carroll, who is a freshman at Charleston Southern, now has a $20,000 grant over the next four years to help cover expenses that his golf scholarship doesn’t.

“It should be able to hopefully make college more fun, less stressful, and hopefully just let him focus on school and golf, which is what I know I was fortunate to be able to do,” Griffin says.

“I just want him to know, look man, like you earned this. This isn’t a gift. You earned this for being a good person, being a good player, being a good student. So, I basically just told him, you can do whatever you think you need to do with this to be successful, whether he plays golf down the road or not. And I just basically just wanted to give him that message don’t feel like you owe me anything.”

Griffin and Carroll share more than just an interest in golf and the talent to play it at a high level, though. In fact, Ewing says, their life stories are “eerily similar.”

Griffin’s father, Michael, who worked at a Blacksburg health food store, had a brain tumor and died when his son was 12. Griffin watched helplessly as his father gradually lost his mental and physical abilities.

Golf was his refuge. Griffin walked the mile or so to the local municipal course that everyone called “The Hill” and could play all day for just $9. Before his father’s condition worsened, he took Griffin to Blacksburg Country Club for a lesson with Steve Prater.

Prater, who became Griffin’s mentor, gave him a membership to the club the day his father died.

Carroll’s mother, Belinda, had ovarian cancer and endured three rounds of chemotherapy as she battled for her life. She died at home in hospice care when he was 16. His father Dave woke up his only child in the middle of the night so he could give his mother one last hug and tell her he loved her. She died 30 minutes later.

“She always wanted me to play golf,” Carroll told the Roanoke Times in 2017. “I want golf to be my future and her and my dad were my biggest fans.”

Ewing, who is now in his second stint at head pro at Blacksburg Country Club, first met Griffin and Carroll – 10 years apart – when they were about 12 years old. He saw first-hand the effect Prater had on Griffin “just as a human being, forget golf, and the role that he played in his life.”

And he thought that Griffin, now grown and following his dream, could help Carroll achieve his.

“I thought that Lanto would be an excellent role model for Ben from a perseverance perspective,” Ewing says. “He could see how hard Lanto has worked and what he’s done to get where he was, and Ben was going to be having the same type of challenge Lanto had.

“But he also, he has some talent. He has some serious talent as a golfer.”

So, Ewing suggested the two meet that day. He also told Griffin about Carroll’s mom.

“I had all the feels came back,” Griffin says. “I was a similar age, similar situation. And I could just feel for him. It’s tough. … I mean, everybody handles heartache and trauma and all of these, and losing a parent, everybody’s going to handle that differently. But, you know, since I had experienced it and I felt like I could try and be there for him a little bit, even though I didn’t know him real well at the time.

“It was a no-brainer for me to (reach out), him playing golf, similar age when he lost his parent, played at the same high school. And it was just, you know, it just made me want to help any way I can. … I didn’t want to be there and try and shove anything down his throat. I wanted just to be a resource. Look man, if you ever want to talk or if you ever want to text me, ask me any questions; how did you handle this or what’s it like, whatever it may be.

“I just wanted to be there … if he needed anybody and just know that he’s got another person in his corner. Because I can remember it’s a horrible feeling knowing that you just lost a parent and you’re not really sure you know what’s going to happen in life. Just want him to know that there’s people that care about him.”

The two text several times a week. Carroll shared the link to the scoring for the Buccaneers’ final tournament of the fall season, and Griffin followed up after every round with a motivational message.

“And then sometimes (the texts) would be talking about swings or just life and developing a routine and stuff like that,” Carroll says. “That’s almost like, yeah, it’s almost kind of like he’s a big brother figure.”

At 31, Griffin isn’t so far removed from college that he doesn’t remember what it was like learning to do his own laundry and cook and make new friends. He remembers struggling to fit in as a freshman and trying to find a school-golf-life balance.

“You hear all the time, it’s a cliche, but you know, I’ve learned so much from my mistakes and from all my experiences since college that I’m there anytime he needs it,” Griffin says. “If he wants to text me at nine o’clock on a Sunday night and he has a tournament in the next day, like, this and this and this is happening, do you have any advice, I’m more than happy to help. …

“It’s awesome. A kid from my hometown, that’s been through a lot of stuff that I have. It feels good. You know, it sounds selfish saying that, but it makes me feel good being able to help him. So, I’ll be there for him. He’s just getting started. And the biggest thing I’ve told him is that, look, anything you do now, like every little thing you do now is going to be important when you’re 23, 24, 26, 28, 30. Like, if you want to play on the PGA TOUR, you might not make it when you’re 22 or 23 years old right out of college.

“But if you can really focus in and make sacrifices now, then in 10 years you might wake up and you might be a winner of the PGA TOUR.”

Griffin, who ranks third in the FedExCup going into the Sentry Tournament of Champions, is living proof.

There was a time when the $17,000 that he made caddying for his good buddy Will Wilcox at his “hometown” event at The Greenbrier was the biggest he’d made in the game. He had missed his last six cuts on the mini-tours and had just $176 in his bank account.

There was a time when he earned a living playing events on the now-defunct eGolf Tour in North Carolina and one-day pro-ams. PGA TOUR Latinoamerica was his first break, and what is now the Korn Ferry Tour was his second.

But Griffin lost his PGA TOUR card after his rookie season. He persevered, though, winning the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail Championship last April and tying for second the following week on the Korn Ferry Tour to get his playing privileges back for the 2019-20 season.

And then in October, Griffin won for the first time on TOUR, beating Scott Harrington by a stroke in Houston. Among the bonuses? Along with the Sentry, he’ll play in his first PLAYERS Championship and Masters this year. In all, Griffin finished among the top 20 in six of his eight starts this season.

“You know, for the guys that are first-team All-Americans, the Jordan Spieths and the Justin Thomases, they win right out of college and they win majors,” Griffin says. “And you know, that’s incredible. I would much rather have that route, but they can’t appreciate staying in one-star hotels at the Monday qualifiers.

“And so being able to be a winner on the PGA TOUR and have the three-year exemption, and be in THE PLAYERS and all this and the Masters, this is crazy to me because three or four years ago, I couldn’t even get in a Korn Ferry Tour event, and I was playing down Latin America and I was playing one day, mini-tour events.

“So, I can really appreciate where I am now because of where I’ve been.”

And one of the things he’s most happy about, though, is the ability to start the Lanto Griffin Foundation to help aspiring athletes such as Carroll as well as players with families battling serious and terminal illnesses.

“It’s kind of humbling to know that you can actually make a difference,” Griffin says.

Ewing first remembers Griffin mentioning starting a foundation during his rookie year on TOUR. He cautioned him against getting ahead of himself and sure enough, Griffin ended up losing his card. But now that the opportunities are opening up for his friend, Ewing couldn’t be prouder.

“I think a lot of people that are in his shoes, with the success that they’ve had, may not make time for people,” Ewing says. “It’s just not a priority. Where it’s almost like the more success Lanto has, the more he makes the other people the priority, which doesn’t seem like that would necessarily be the case.

“And that’s been just one of the most impressive things about Lanto. I’ve said this 100 times … right now, he’s got the most money he’s ever had in his life and he’s probably the most humble that he’s ever been in his life. That’s so refreshing to see.”

Griffin went home to Blacksburg late last fall and had a chance to celebrate his breakthrough victory with friends, many of whom helped back him financially in his early days as a pro and never asked to be repaid. Ewing remembers watching that tournament with some buddies and club members at the home of David Chapman, the father of Griffin’s best friend Oliver.

Ewing says it was a “pretty surreal” moment.

“Seeing him win, it was really emotional and cool for all of us, but for David it was just like watching his son win,” he says.

Carroll, who went to Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, last month to visit Griffin and work with the pro’s instructor Todd Anderson, remembers trying to watch the final round of the Houston Open on TV in his dorm. The cable service wasn’t very cooperative, though.

“I was following it on the PGA TOUR website, and I saw it on Twitter,” Carroll recalls. “I think the moment right when he made it, I saw the winner graphic on Twitter and stuff, and I texted him right after. It took him a couple of days to respond cause I’m sure it had about 700 of them.”

Carroll acknowledges that he grew up following Tiger Woods and more recently, Justin Thomas. He still is a big fan of both – but his relationship with Griffin is different.

“It honestly …  doesn’t seem like he’s really anything more than my friend that much,” Carroll says. “I mean, I don’t have Justin Thomas’ or Tiger’s phone number and I can’t text them after a round.

“But I mean, he is definitely the person I root the most for.”

Ewing, the matchmaker, couldn’t be happier to see the way Griffin and Carroll have bonded.

“I’m just super proud of them, both of them in different ways,” he says. “I think they’re going to have a long friendship together, for sure.”

By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM