VCU grad Grif­fin takes long road to U.S. Open

Friends’ fi­nan­cial sup­port helped keep him go­ing

Richmond Times-Dispatch - - GOLF - BY JA­COB MY­ERS jmy­ers@times­dis­ 804-649-6295 @Ja­cob_My­ers_25

Walk­ing up to the 18th green in the fi­nal group dur­ing U.S. Open qual­i­fy­ing at Colo­nial Coun­try Club in Mem­phis, Tenn., Lanto Grif­fin was at 10-un­der­par and fig­ured he was safely above the cut line. He asked the rules of­fi­cial what the num­ber was, and he told Grif­fin he thought it was 134 — 9 un­der.

“So now I’m think­ing

... I’m not go­ing to use the word I was think­ing,” Grif­fin said, “but ... I got to get this up and down to maybe avoid a play­off.”

After hit­ting what the VCU alum­nus said was his best putt of the day, it lipped out for his third bo­gey in the fi­nal five holes, and he thought he’d be play­ing his 37th hole.

Grif­fin walked 150 feet to see the leader board, only to re­al­ize he made the field by two strokes. He shot 7-un­der (64) and a 70 to qual­ify for his first U.S. Open.

“That’s go­ing to be a feel­ing I’ll never for­get,” Grif­fin said.

It was a break­through that never seemed pos­si­ble in his eight-year pro­fes­sional ca­reer. When he was play­ing on smaller tours, Grif­fin sur­vived on the gen­eros­ity from the peo­ple who be­came his ex­tended fam­ily after his fa­ther died from a brain tu­mor in 2001. Once $30,000 in debt, Grif­fin’s ca­reer would have flamed out be­fore it be­gan with­out the peo­ple who sup­ported him fi­nan­cially.

The moment of his first tee shot, at 8:35 a.m. at Shin­necock Hills in New York on Thurs­day, will be theirs just as much as it will be his.

Grif­fin, 29, picked up golf when his dad be­came ill in 2001 as an es­cape from life for a lit­tle while. His dad in­tro­duced him to Steve Prater, the head pro at Blacksburg Coun­try Club, who still hasn’t charged Grif­fin for a les­son to this day.

“He had a real pas­sion for golf. It was clear,” said Prater, who is now at Roanoke Coun­try Club.

Grif­fin also met Stu­art Swan­son — who drove and paid for Grif­fin to play in ju­nior tour­na­ments with his daugh­ter and cad­died for him oc­ca­sion­ally in pro events for seven years — and Bill El­len­bo­gen, who once gave Grif­fin $5,000 after he called say­ing he needed money to con­tinue play­ing in events.

“All of a sud­den I went from hav­ing one dad to I felt like I had eight or 10,” he said. “I would re­ally be cu­ri­ous to know what my life would be like if that whole tragedy didn’t hap­pen.”

After he grad­u­ated from VCU and turned pro in the win­ter of 2010, Grif­fin played on the SwingThought Tour and the PGA Lati­noamer­ica Tour and went through qual­i­fy­ing school mul­ti­ple times be­fore fi­nally play­ing con­sis­tently on that tour and earn­ing his PGA Tour card last year.

Miss­ing a cut on the mini­tours means you lose maybe $2,500, Grif­fin said. With play­ers vy­ing for a share of a pot of 80 to 90 per­cent of all en­try fees, Grif­fin’s fi­nances took a ma­jor hit like so many other play­ers try­ing to make it in the pro­fes­sion.

He said only about five to 10 play­ers on mini­tours break even each year. The first year he fi­nally did was in 2015, when he won four tour­na­ments on two tours.

“It’s re­ally hard to keep your head above wa­ter on the mini­tours,” Grif­fin said. “And that’s why a lot of peo­ple have to give up their dreams ... be­cause fi­nan­cially it’s just not pos­si­ble.”

Grif­fin turned his ca­reer around when he won a tour event in Nashville last year and used his $99,000 pay­out to pay off his debt.

Grif­fin played well enough in the fi­nal 10 events and earned his tour card. He passed it off to Swan­son to keep. It’s now on dis­play in his house.

“I’ve never been a part of a dream or some­body in­cluded me in their dream and there was an ex­act moment when the dream came true,” Swan­son said. “And then he memo­ri­al­ized it by giv­ing it to me, so that was pretty pow­er­ful.”

Grif­fin, whose birth­day is Fri­day, once thought mak­ing the PGA Tour was unattain­able — let alone Amer­ica’s golf cham­pi­onship.

Walk­ing up to the first tee Thurs­day, his pas­sion for the game and the peo­ple be­hind him in the gallery who sup­ported him will be the rea­son he’s there.

“Their in­vest­ment kind of made it pos­si­ble,” he said. “They’re kind of a part of the jour­ney.”

“It’s re­ally hard to keep your head above wa­ter on the mini­tours.” Lanto Grif­fin, who spent five years on the smaller tours be­fore break­ing even

2016, VSGA

Lanto Grif­fin, who won the 2016 Delta Den­tal State Open of Vir­ginia at Bal­ly­hack Golf Club, earned his PGA Tour card last year. He’s sched­uled to tee off Thurs­day in the U.S. Open at 8:31 a.m.

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