VCU grad Griffin takes long road to U.S. Open
Friends’ financial support helped keep him going
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 Web.com 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 Web.com 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
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.