01 July 2019: No, golf is not life and death. But sometimes, it is death and then life, and when you come across people built of such incomparable strength that they handle that most excruciating of sequences, you want for them to have a stage basked in brilliant sunshine and surrounded by adoring supporters.
That moment arrived early Sunday evening for Nate Lashley – the stunning winner of the Rocket Mortgage Classic at Detroit Golf Club – and it could not have been more perfect. Not because he had the 18th green to himself after romping to a six-stroke win over Doc Redman, but because he was embraced by his sister, Brooke, perhaps the only person in this world of ours who could even fathom the emotions that have consumed the two of them since that horrific day in May of 2004 when a plane crash claimed the lives of their parents, Rod and Char, and Nathan’s then-girlfriend, Leslie Hofmeister.
They had flown in Rod’s four-seat, single-engine Mooney M20K from Nebraska to watch Nate and his team play in the NCAA Regional and were returning home.
“The rest of us don’t have a clue how he feels,” said Rick LaRose, who was Lashley’s coach at the University of Arizona 15 years ago when life changed forever.
Brooke Lashley, who travelled to Pebble Beach two weeks ago to watch her brother play in the U.S. Open, was back home in Phoenix and a trip to Detroit GC “wasn’t on my radar.” At least, not until her brother, who got into the field mid-day Wednesday as the last alternate, started making birdie upon birdie upon birdie and Saturday’s third-round 63 propelled him into a six-shot lead.
Then, the older sister said to herself, “I cannot not be there,” and that sentiment resonated in various homes in the Phoenix area, as well as with a small army of family friends in western Nebraska.
Next thing you know, Saturday evening flights were made and Nate Lashley had an even larger following Sunday’s final round and when he birdied two of the first three holes, it was as if tens of thousands of people who flocked to this first-ever PGA TOUR tournament inside Detroit’s city limits were galvanized in a compelling drama of human spirit.
“It made me feel like I wasn’t out there alone,” said Lashley, 36, a second-year member playing in just his 33rd TOUR tournament.
Which was in stark contrast to all those times when he couldn’t help but feel alone and never felt the need to pull others into his private world.
“Honestly, we’ve never talked about it and I’ve known him a long time,” said Ricky Romano, who played for the University of Houston, then on a series of mini-tours, crossing paths for years with Lashley. Two years ago, he agreed to caddie for Lashley, so, yes, there have been plenty of opportunities, but those who know Lashley afforded him well-deserved privacy.
“I know Nate’s thinking about it. It’s got to be always on his mind,” said Greg Luebe, who coached Lashley in basketball at Mitchell High School in Mitchell, Neb. “But there was no way we needed to talk to him about it.”
LaRose said he even offered Lashley as much time off as he wanted in the 2004-05 season, just months after the crash, “but he said no, that he wanted to return to school, play, and earn his degree.”
Lashley did all of that, then he turned pro and struggled mightily, a poor season on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2006 led to one minitour stint after another until. What stands out is his success; Lashley won the Colorado Open, a couple of Waterloo Opens, he won on the Gateway Tour, on the EGolf Tour, on the Dakotas Tour, then in 2015 he won three times on the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, which afforded him a chance to play on the Korn Ferry Tour, where in 2017, he won the Corales Puntacana Resort.
The list was read off to Scott Stallings, a TOUR winner who smiled. He was one of those who competed against Lashley in the 2008 Waterloo Open, so he can appreciate the man’s spirit. “I have so much respect for what he’s done because the valleys are way more than the peaks,” said Stallings. “I’m rooting for him.”
Stallings stood in line and Adam Shenk was right there with him. A second-year TOUR member, Shenk played against and travelled with Lashley on the PGA TOUR Latinoamerica and wasn’t surprised by the 27 birdies he made against just two bogeys in rounds of 63-67-63-70 – 263.
“He’s not scared to go low, not scared to win,” said Shenk, who chose Lashley as his partner for a Latinoamerica team event in Mexico City. They finished eighth of 30 teams. “I think that attitude might have come from the adversity he faced in his life, that when compared to that, nothing really scares him.”
Shenk, like Romano, never talked about the plane crash, but in the aftermath of his dominating win at Detroit GC – one that rewarded him with a check for $1.314 million, plus priceless job security – Lashley conceded that Luebe was correct.
“I’ve been through a lot. It took a lot of years for me to get over (the deaths). It was mentally holding me back for a long time,” said Lashley, the world’s 353rd-ranked player whose only other top 10 before this week was a T-8 in Puerto Rico.
“I think of my parents all the time. Without them, I wouldn’t be sitting here right now.”
Emotional and thankful.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 30, 2019
Mixed into all those years of minor league golf was a time when Lashley felt he needed to get a real job, so he turned to real estate. Brooke Lashley laughs when asked if she served as counsel for her brother. “Nate’s his own man,” she said. She also rejects the notion that he walked away from golf.
“I always felt it was more of a break than a quit.”
But will commiserate with Lashley’s colleagues and peers, nearly all of whom described him similarly. Very competitive on the course, almost to the point where he spent too much time beating himself up, but gentle and lighthearted off it.
In fact, on Tuesday evening of the U.S. Open, there was a small gathering, a cookout with steaks and beverages and good talk. “It was a great evening,” said Romano, “so I said to (Nate), ‘Don’t take this the wrong way, but why can’t you be like this on the golf course?’ ”
Romano isn’t sure, but he wonders if Lashley took that to be the compliment it was intended to be. Because even after he failed to get through the Monday qualifier for the Rocket Mortgage Classic, he remained upbeat. On Tuesday, Lashley was playing Detroit GC and came across veteran rules official Mark Russell, who encouraged him to stay positive, that he’d likely get in.
He did and oh, did he take advantage. He birdied the very first hole, went out in 32, and little did anyone know that a story that would define the human spirit was being scripted.
The vibes started building and out in Mitchell, Neb., the man who cherished his days as a high school basketball coach, embraced everything about this developing story. “Just amazing, given the tough times in his life,” said Luebe.
“He was only 6-1, but he’d come up to me, knowing the other team’s best player was 6-4 and he’d say, ‘I’ll guard him, coach.’ Just a tremendous competitor.”
If you sensed there were tears at the other end of the phone line, it was for good reason. Luebe was great friends with Rod Lashley, “we used to play a lot of golf together,” and it’s painful to recall the day that single-engine plane crashed into Gannett Peak in Wyoming.
“The whole story still gives me a sense of sadness. But if anybody deserves something like this to happen to him, it’s Nate.”
And Brooke, of course. The proud and incredibly strong sister stood greenside with Ashlie Reed, Lashley’s girlfriend, and a dozen or so friends from Phoenix and Nebraska. Everyone got a hug in with the winner, but Brooke’s was long and warm and filled with tears.
“It’s a great lesson, that you can go through really, really tough times and still come out on top,” she said.
Asked for what she said to her brother, Brooke wiped away tears and shook her head. They will remain private, just for brother and sister. The rest of the story is for everyone, for which we are blessed.
Jim McCabe on PGA TOUR