I’m a sucker for a feel-good story and if it involves sport, or better still, golf, I can find my emotions running high and the tears flowing very, very easily indeed. So, this has been a bumper week from that point of view, with heart-wrenching tales everywhere you look.
Let’s start with Nate Lashley. That’s him in the picture above. Ever heard of him? No, neither had I until five or six days ago when he went into the final round of the PGA Tour’s intriguingly named Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit leading by a substantial margin. He opened on Thursday with a 9 under par 63, never relinquished the lead and eventually won on Sunday by six strokes. Apart from winning a tidy cheque for $1,314,000, he has assured his status on the PGA Tour until the end of the 2020/2021 season and has invitations into the next three majors, starting with the Open at Portrush in two weeks time.Those are the bare bones of his story but add the following into the mix and you’ll realise this is the stuff of movieland.
In 2004 Nate was playing collegiate golf for the University of Arizona and his parents and girlfriend flew up to watch him compete in an important college fixture. Afterwards, as they were flying home, their plane got into difficulty and crashed, tragically killing all three of them. Nate did his best to soldier on with his dreams of making it in golf, turning pro in 2005 and bouncing around unsuccessfully on various mini-tours until finally quitting to sell real estate in 2012.
His ambition wouldn’t die, however, and he came back to the game, finally making some headway in 2015 with five top 10 placings on the PGA Tour Latino/America. The year 2016 saw more improvement with three wins on that tour, making him exempt onto what was then the Web.com Tour, one level down from the PGA Tour. Competing at this higher level brought out more of the best of Nate and he finished 11th in the overall standings which meant that in 2018, at the age of 35, he would be a PGA Tour rookie.
The fairytale wasn’t yet complete, however, and, hampered by a knee injury, 2018 wasn’t a great success and he failed to gain full status for this 2019 season. Cue scraping around for starts on the main tour and lots of attempts at Monday qualifying, the most brutal examination of them all, where over a hundred players may tee it up for three or four spots each week. Less than two weeks ago Nate didn’t quite get through the Monday test prior to the tournament in Detroit but he did secure third reserve spot. Luckily for him three players withdrew and he led from start to finish.
He admitted that coming down the last hole he was thinking of his parents and girlfriend and understandably was feeling overwhelmed. “I’m just really emotional right now,” he said and then added, “I’m just happy I got into the tournament. To win on the PGA tour is a dream.”
And so, next stop for Nate Lashley is Royal Portrush – quite an adventure for a man who hasn’t even been to Europe before, never mind played golf in the Emerald Isle.
Pass the hankies, please.Next up on this double bill of stories that pull at my heartstrings is that of 25-year old South African Christiaan Bezuidenhout, who won the Estrella Damm N A Andalucia Masters, the European tour event hosted last week by Sergio, at the wonderful Valderrama golf course. Like our friend Nate, this was also Christiaan’s first win on a big tour and he, too, won by six shots. Bezuidenhout has had to battle adversity his whole life because as an inquisitive two-year old he swallowed the contents of a coke can he found on the street – although the contents were not coke, but rat poison. Despite being rushed to hospital to have his stomach pumped the toddler suffered nerve damage and developed a debilitating stutter, resulting in long-lasting anxiety issues.
He became introverted and depressed, shunning people in case he had to speak to them. At 14 he began working with a psychologist who recommended he take beta blockers to manage his anxiety levels. All this time he persevered with his golf and fulfilled a lifelong ambition when selected to play for South Africa in the Eisenhower Trophy at the 2014 World Amateur Team Championships (WATC). Fate was to intervene in a cruel way, however, and a few weeks before the WATC he was randomly selected for a drug test when competing in the Amateur Championship at Royal Portrush. He openly declared on the top of the form that he was using beta blockers but the results flagging up the beta-blocker use, suggesting it was to enhance performance, reached the South African Golf Union two days before the team was due to fly out for the Eisenhower Trophy.
Christiaan was stripped of his place on the team and banned from taking part in any golf tournaments for a period of two years. It was a tough time.
“A lot of nasty things were said and I was known as the guy banned from golf for a drug-related incident,” he said. “I was aware of how labels like that are hard to shake off and I reached a very low point in my life, I was banned from playing the only thing in the world I loved, the game of golf. I was inconsolable.”
He never gave up, though.
“After what seemed like the darkest period of my life I had a hearing and they reduced my sentence from two years to nine months after confirming that I had not used the drug for any performance-enhancing benefits. They were the longest nine months of my life.”
Returning to competition, he won his first event by seven shots, using the whole awful experience as extra motivation to do well. In 2017 he was Rookie of the Year on the Sunshine Tour and secured his European Tour card for 2018 where he had some solid performances and retained his playing privileges for 2019.
Now he, too, is heading to Portrush for the Open. Perhaps he’ll meet up with Nate – two remarkable men who have overcome so much.
There is one thing Christiaan said about those dark days that sticks in my mind: “The fact I was cleared of using any form of drug to better my performance was the most important thing.
“My father, who introduced me to the sport, brought me up to play golf like a gentleman, with honesty and integrity so to have that questioned was very hard to cope with. I felt I had let my family down which above all else was the hardest issue to cope with.”More hankies, please.