Nate Lashley had a tear in his eye at the tee on Tuesday as the magnitude of it all came into focus. Fifteen years ago both his parents and girlfriend were killed in a light aircraft disaster. Now, having crawled through unthinkable grief, he is playing at his first Open Championships.
“I don’t know whether it feels like they are with me or not, but I am thinking about them,” the 36-year-old tells The Daily Telegraph, welling up with emotion after finishing for the day at Royal Portrush.
Few athletes have clawed their way back from the type of darkness endured by Lashley in 2004. His father Rod, mother Char and girlfriend Leslie Hofmeister were missing for three days before their bodies and the wreckage of their single-engine plane was found in Wyoming. Lashley’s dearest loved ones had been watching him play for the University of Arizona.
By 2012, quite understandably, he was disillusioned with golf. “I just was a little bit burnt out so took four or five months off from golf and did some different real estate stuff, flipped some houses and other stuff,” he says. “I have a buddy who is a real estate broker, he got me into it. It was just something to do in the meantime and then once I started doing that for a few months, you kind of realise that you miss golf and the competition and wanted to get back out there. It paid off.”
However, reinvigorated by aged 30, he has rebuilt his life, met a new partner and steadily climbed through the rankings before landing his first PGA title – the Rocket Mortgage Classic – last month. The tragedy would come flooding back to him, however, as he walked toward the 18th green at Detroit Golf Club. Fighting back tears, he wished his mother and father were watching.
“When you are in that situation, it was just a time when you wished my parents could have been a part of that,” he said. “It was emotional, not as emotional as it could have been because I was still focused on playing. It was probably a little more emotional after I was done. It would have been a really special moment to get to spend with my parents.”
Lashley, the 353rd ranked player in the world at the time, closed with a two-under 70 to finish at 25-under on 263, winning by six shots, the margin he took into the day. It was some feat for a man who had qualified for the PGA Tour’s first event in Detroit as an alternate. “I was really hoping I was going to get in, I felt like it was going well and it didn’t pay off. It was very fortunate to get in and it worked out that way, obviously.”
His trip to Portrush this week is his second major – he shared 28th at this year’s US Open – and the first time he has even set foot in Europe. He lives in sweltering Arizona these days, but says his upbringing in windy Nebraska will equip him with the tools to take on the links.
“Obviously it’s British, so it’s a different experience but it’s cool,” he said. “I grew up in the middle of nowhere. Nebraska is really windy. I’m pretty cool with cold weather and wind even though I live in Arizona now. I don’t mind if there’s some tough conditions. I consider myself a good ball striker so I like it when it’s playing tough and you’ve got to hit the ball solid. I enjoy that. It helps good ball-strikers.”
Lashley said he is “always thinking about my parents”, but is now in a better place than ever. He even still dabbles in the property market in his spare time. “I still have my licence. I actually just bought three properties in the last year. In Scottsdale we do a lot of rental properties so I have got seven or eight rental properties and then have a property manager, who is one of my buddies. I’ve used my licence quite a bit.”
Lashley, who is a 400/1 shot with the bookmakers, admits he has been struggling to sleep ahead of the first tee. He will go out with Shugo Imahira and Benjamin Herbert. “Last night I couldn’t sleep,” he said. “I don’t know why but I was awake until four in the morning, just lying there. Obviously there is the time change. I thought I would sleep pretty well because I hadn’t got much in the last couple of days. I’m hoping tonight to get some sleep. I’ll be all right. Any time you get to play in a tournament like this, adrenalin is going to be high and you won’t get tired.”